I walk up to the bed. The man lying there has a tube feeding into his arm, and another one under his nose. It is a warm evening and a small fan is perched on a wheeled skinny table next to him.
“Hello there,” I say brightly, “My name is Erin and I’m a volunteer with the hospital radio station.”
The man gives a faint smile and nods, “Hello.”
“We have a special request show tonight, and I was wondering if we could play a song for you.”
He looks despondent. “I wish I could listen to the radio but I don’t have one.”
“Oh really? Actually there’s a contraption thing there on the wall that has a radio, I can pull it over and set it up for you?”
I squeeze past the table to the entertainment unit. It sticks out on a mechanical arm and I awkwardly wrangle it towards the bed. I set it up for the man, whose name is José*. I explain the different stations and tell him our show starts at 8pm. I try to bring it close so that he can operate it, but he cannot really move.
“Leave it on the hospital station,” he says, which is met with a big grin from me.
I say I need to go and get some headphones for him; he promises to give me a request when I get back.
“I’ll hold you to that!”
I return with the headphones, and he chooses ‘Anything for you’, by Gloria Estefan.
“Would you like to dedicate it to anyone?” I ask, making notes.
He says it was a special song for him and his partner, before they passed away a year ago, from cancer.
I nod and we exchange a sad smile. “Thank you so much for sharing that, José. We’ll definitely play it for you a little bit later.”
I continue on through the hospital wards. Sometimes people are in too much pain to talk, sometimes they cannot hear, sometimes they cannot speak English and I berate my lack of other languages. Sometimes their smile lights up their whole face, and they tell you a story about their lives.
One lady is a famous opera singer who has travelled the world and sung before the late Queen Mother. We find one of her recordings on YouTube and play it on the show; it is beautiful.
A man called Andrew tells me he was born in poverty in the 1920s, his family of nine crammed into two small rooms. He came home from the war and announced to his wife, “I’ll never be poor again!” and, he says to me, he never was.
Another lady has lived in London her whole life. She used to work in Knightsbridge and would get the bus into the West End to see a musical, anything she could get a cheap ticket to, which she was able to do “nine times out of ten”. When it came to really popular shows her friends would say, “There’s no way you’ll get a seat tonight!” and she would reply, “You want a bet?!” She is vibrant, lying there in her bed. She chooses the wartime classic, ‘We’ll meet again’.
One man dedicates his request to “Sarah in the unit next door”, while another patient dedicates their song to “all of the nursing staff”. Occasionally people give me a conspiratorial smile and announce they will dedicate their song to themselves. “And why not?” I agree.
I leave the wards having witnessed snapshots of lives, from every kind of person, suffering from any kind of thing; illness does not discriminate. Back in the studio we play all of the requests, from opera to pop, Susan Boyle to Britney Spears, and we have one or two laughs in between songs. I think of the people that I have met and I wonder if they are listening.
This one goes out to them.
*All names have been changed to respect privacy.