The air was cool. Too cool to be outside with only a paper thin white coat and wintry enough for this Grady elder passing me by to give me a tiny head shake when I tried to pull that same inadequate coat closer to my body for warmth. But the walk wasn’t far. I was only heading out of the hospital door and half a block to our office building. Two minutes, tops. And sometimes the threat of chilly air isn’t enough to make you deal with the hassle of schlepping a winter coat onto the hospital floors.
For me, that is.
As I crossed the street, I saw a young woman walking briskly. She was holding what appeared to be a baby that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. Fortunately, she’d checked the weather and dressed her baby and herself appropriately. Unlike the doctor approaching them.
“Good morning,” I spoke.
“G’morning,” she replied, still hustling.
I craned my neck over to catch a glimpse of baby as we crossed paths. It warmed my heart when she paused for two seconds to pull down the fuzzy pink fleece covering her cherubic face. I stood on my tiptoes to get a better look. Reflexively, I smiled and placed my hand on my chest. “Congratulations. She’s beautiful,” I said. And then, since I knew she appeared to be in a hurry, I added, “Have a great day!”
“You, too, ma’am!” She was already four or five steps away by then and almost into the County Health Department--which is conveniently located across the street from Grady and is also a necessary destination for parents of new babies seeking birth certificates.
I kept walking and picked up my pace. On the steps of the Glenn building (also across from the hospital), I saw this rotund fellow sitting down and preparing to smoke a cigarette. He appeared to work in construction of some sort, as he was wearing a reflective vest and steel-toe boots. He looked up, made quick eye contact with me, and gave me the nod. I returned the favor.
In that glance, I also gave him some uninvited admonishment about the cigarettes. Since my expression was decidedly playful, his reply was, too. He held up his index finger and beat it in the air a few times--his nonverbal way of saying, “This is the last one!” I narrowed one eye, pursed my lips and pointed at him as passed. My way of saying, “I got my eye on you!” And then we both laughed. Which was cool because I didn’t know him yet we’d just had an entire exchange without saying a word.
At this point I was just a couple of strides away from the entrance to our faculty office building. I rummaged around for my access card to get in. It wasn’t clipped to my jacket and wasn’t in my pockets either. . . . hmmmm.
I thought for a few seconds and then. . . . Shoot! I remembered in that instant that I’d left it sitting on my office desk earlier that morning. Man. It was too cold for all this. Pulling my coat together once more, I decided to make a break for it around the corner to the public entrance.
I usually try not to run while wearing my white coat unless it’s an emergency. I know it always alarms people to see doctors rushing anywhere. This was no different; I could tell by the group of people standing catty-corner by the hospital who all stopped to watch me. When I noticed them, I stopped running and resorted to walking as quickly as I could instead.
Now, I was at the door. Finally. But just before I could escape the cool air, I paused. I was hearing something unusual.
“What is that?”
I turned around and stepped back out on the sidewalk to look around. I couldn’t see where it was coming from, but that sound was getting louder and louder. I looked over my shoulder to see if, perhaps, it was coming from our building. But it wasn’t.
Louder and louder. Closer and closer. And finally, I saw what it was
A man perfectly playing a flute. Not looking for money or applause or any such thing. But I was so entranced by its perfect pitch that I gave him all of those things.
“Beautiful!” I said while clapping my hands. It really was.
“Today, Grady, tomorrow, The Apollo!” And then he laughed out loud a bit before playing an up-tempo little piece right then and there for me on that sidewalk.
And I clapped and tapped my foot the whole time, forgetting about the cold and even why I was going back to my office in the first place. The song was short and sweet. And before I could say anything else, he’d tipped his hat and thanked me for listening. And I thanked him right back for blessing me with his gift.
I watched him long after he’d passed me by. On he went—walking and playing. The sound of his heels clicking the concrete were his makeshift metronome and I could see his shoulders hunching in concert with each note. I squinted my eyes to try to take in the expressions of those under the sound of his flute. And from what I saw, they all seemed to be blessed, too. And I swear to you, all of it was magical.
Eventually, he turned a corner and was out of my line of sight. Just then, I felt the chill of November on my chest again. I opened the door and went on up to my office.
So that was what happened in the two minutes that it took me to walk across the street from Grady Hospital to my office. But it was a reminder. A reminder of what can happen when I remember to open my eyes and notice the moments, the music, and the magic swirling around the most ordinary parts of my day.
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.