The child in a picture with Jesse Paledofsky in the District Weekly on Dec. 20 was incorrectly identified. The child was Henry Bracey, not Andrew Pomeranz. (Published 12/27/90)
Joy to the world! The Lord is come . . . .
And heaven and nature sing. -- "Joy to the World"
Jesse Paledofsky sings Christmas carols and folk songs and nursery rhymes to delicate children with thin hair and intravenous needles in their arms.
When their days are filled with blood tests, nausea and fear, he strums his guitar and their ears hear joy.
For more than two years, he has lugged his guitar case down the halls of Children's Hospital in Northwest Washington, popping into rooms to ask for requests. Most of the youngsters who make up his audience have no idea that this bearded man in a tie and tennis shoes with fluorescent laces is actually a hospital chaplain.
To sing last week to 2-year-old Megan George, who has non-lymphocytic leukemia, Paledofsky had to scrub his arms and don a sanitized gown before entering her sterilized isolation room.
She greeted him with wide baby eyes as he pulled his guitar from the case. He sat down, propped the guitar on his knees and strummed.
Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea;
You swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above you and the sea below.
You're just a little white whale on the go.
Megan, who recently underwent a bone marrow transplant, looked at her mother in disbelief. She clapped her hands, laughed and wiggled her body. She stared at this personable musician, kicked her feet with joy and leaned her head to the side, as if to listen better.
"This brightens up her day," said Megan's mother, Rhonda George. "After the second time he sang for her, she cried when he left. She's mesmerized by the songs he sings."
The effect on him is much the same, said Paledofsky, who works primarily with young cancer patients and their families. "I think music goes to the heart the way words can't," he said. "Music is one of the things that heal me.
"I've found often with children, especially those newly diagnosed with cancer, that families are so upset that it's hard to get a foot in the door. Parents see so many new faces -- nurses and doctors -- the first few weeks, I started bringing my guitar as a defense. I felt music would be a good way to connect, a real non-threatening way to get in the door."
So sometimes he will go into a play area, sit on one of the tiny chairs and give a concert for the children who trail in.
"If I had to sum up my ministry, I'd call it a hanging-out ministry, to be there for the kids and their parents," he said. "I do tell them I'm a minister, but I don't feel I have to preach to them."
When he isn't singing, he is counseling with words. His duty as chaplain of one of the nation's largest hospitals for children is to comfort people of all denominations, "helping them find what their own spiritual resources are," he said. Periodically, he also is called into meetings of doctors to help them with ethical issues.
Paledofsky, 35, studied jazz piano in his native Detroit, then played with bands in clubs and bars. He later picked up the guitar, he said, because he couldn't carry around a piano. He used to sing standards such as "Blue Bossa" and "My Favorite Things."
Today his repertoire includes "I Wanna Be a Dog," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Old MacDonald."
"I know 300 to 400 songs," he said. "I try to have something for everyone. I try to key into the age of the child."
Inside Dietrich Ames's room, he found the 10-year-old patient with sickle cell anemia dressed in a gown, sitting in a chair, with an intravenous needle in his arm.
Dietrich needed a song; Paledofsky sang:
Oh, I wanna be a dog! (pant, pant, pant, pant)
I wanna drool on the floor (pant, pant, pant, pant)
Get pats on the head, chase cats, get fed
Chew your shoes and bark at the door.
Dietrich's pale lips turned into a thin smile. He joined in the panting and, toward the end of the song, a howl. The smile grew until it overtook his face.
Paledofsky found 4-year-old Andrew Pomeranz in bed, his parents standing nearby. This day Andrew was going home. But first he wanted to hear "Puff, the Magic Dragon." He sang with the chaplain, lying on his pillow, belting out the chorus.
And he couldn't stop giggling when Paledofsky sang "I Wanna Be a Dog."
"He's a silly guy," the boy blurted between giggles.
Joy consumed 21-month-old Henry Bracey's face when Paledofsky stepped into his room.
The chaplin strummed and sang:
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . . .
Right here with Henry, I'm gonna let it shine."
The little boy smiled easily, clearly delighted to hear his name in the song.
Paledofsky sometimes composes birthday songs incorporating a child's name. When members of his audience are discharged from the hospital, it's not unusual for them to request a tape of his songs to carry home.
Of course, there also are sad times: He has sung at the funerals of about 20 children, and at least 30 of the children he worked with have died this year.
But always, in some way, he has felt the healing capacity of his music.
Once, when the parents of an 8-year-old boy with cancer made the difficult decision to remove his life-support system, they asked Paledofsky to stay in the room and sing to the boy.
"It was a moving experience to sing silly songs to him and spiritual songs too," Paledofsky said. "People have a right to die well . . . . "
Then there was the 6-year-old boy who doctors said in March would die within two weeks. Paledofsky was summoned to his room. When he asked the child what song he wanted to hear, the boy did not hesitate: "Joy to the World."
So Paledofsky, who thought the request a little odd, sang:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing . . . .
"It brought tears to my eyes," Paledofsky said.
The little boy did not die within two weeks. He lived through the spring and the summer, and he saw the leaves change color.
Paledofsky was called to sing again:
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy . . . .
The last time Paledofsky saw the child, in September, just before the boy died, he had the same request. So once more, Paledofsky, who by now no longer thought of the song as just a Christmas hymn, sang passionately:
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove,
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love!