"It brought tears to my eyes."

By Arielle Tschinkel
November 20, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images

With COVID-19 cases rising across the country, frontline medical workers are faced with unexpected and unfathomable challenges every single day. Now more than ever, they deserve support and appreciation for their hard work.

This week, one intubated patient with COVID-19 found a unique way to express gratitude to his caregivers: playing the violin from his hospital bed.

Grover Wilhelmsen, a retired orchestra teacher, spent more than a month in the intensive care unit (ICU) of McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah on a ventilator as he fought COVID-19. ICYDK, a ventilator is a machine that helps you breathe or breathes for you, providing air and oxygen to your lungs through a tube that goes in your mouth and down your windpipe. COVID-19 patients might need to be put on a ventilator (aka intubated) if they've experienced lung damage or respiratory failure due to the effects of the virus. (Related: Is This Coronavirus Breathing Technique Legit?)

While you're typically unconscious when you're first intubated, most often you're "sleepy but conscious" once you're on the ventilator, according to Yale Medicine (think: when your alarm goes off but you're not yet fully awake).

As you might have guessed, being on a ventilator means you can't speak. But that didn't stop Wilhemsen from communicating with hospital staff through notes. At one point, he wrote that he'd been playing and teaching music his entire life, and he asked his nurse, Ciara Sase, R.N., if his wife Diana could bring in his violin to play for everyone in the ICU.

"I said to him, 'We'd love to hear you play; it would bring so much brightness and positivity into our environment,'" Sase said in a press release. Since it would be too challenging to hear him through the hospital room's glass walls, Sase stood by him with a microphone so those in other units could enjoy his music as well.

"About a dozen caregivers gathered to watch and listen in the ICU," shared Sase. "It brought tears to my eyes. For all the staff to see a patient doing this while intubated was unbelievable. Even though he was so sick, he was still able to push through. You could see how much it meant to him. Playing kind of helped to soothe his nerves and brought him back to the moment." (FYI, music is a known anxiety-buster.)

"It was honestly shocking to be there when he picked up the violin," added Matt Harper, R.N., another nurse at the hospital. "It felt like I was in a dream. I'm used to patients being miserable or sedated while being intubated, but Grover made an unfortunate situation into something positive. This was by far one of my favorite memories in the ICU that I've had. It was a small light in the darkness of COVID." (Related: What It's Really Like to Be an Essential Worker In the U.S. During the Coronavirus Pandemic)

Wilhelmsen played multiple times for a couple of days before he became too sick and required sedation, according to the press release. "I was in there for an hour and a half to two hours each time he played," shared Sase. "Afterward, I told him how thankful we were and how much it meant to us."

Before he took a turn for the worse, continued Sase, Wilhelmsen would often write notes such as, "It's the very least I could do," and "I do it for you guys because you all are sacrificing so much to take care of me."

"He truly is special and made a mark on all of us," said Sase. "When I started to cry in the room after he was done playing, he wrote to me, 'Quit crying. Just smile,' and he smiled at me." (Related: Nurses Created a Moving Tribute for Their Colleagues Who've Died of COVID-19)

Thankfully, it seems Wilhelmsen is on the road to recovery since his bedside concerts. The press release says he was recently discharged from the ICU and transferred to a long-term acute care facility where he's "expected to recover."

For now, Wilhemsen's wife Diana said he's "too weak" to play the violin. "But when he gets his strength back, he'll pick up his violin and return to his passion for music."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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