Pulse of Longwood takes you inside one of the nation’s largest hubs of hospitals and biomedical research.
Nervous patients heading into surgery at one Boston hospital may get an extra dose of pre-op medicine: a serenade from transport worker Lindon Beckford. That is, if he can just calm his own nerves first.
Beckford spends his days wheeling patients around Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a 672-bed hospital in the Longwood Medical Area. Over the past three decades, he has become known for filling the hallways with song. His melodies have caught the attention of hospital staff, who have featured his performances in an employee orientation video and even called on him to sing to a patient who was about to die.
Beckford, 52, does this while battling his own condition, anxiety and panic attacks that can make it hard to sing. His stage is a network of hospital corridors and patient rooms, which he traverses for eight hours a day in a blue hospital uniform and bright white sneakers.
He sings while rolling patients into surgery, delivering wheelchairs, fetching broken equipment, and taking blood and urine samples to the lab. He sings gospel, love songs, and country music classics from Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Charley Pride. Sometimes he hums his own reggae songs in a genre called “lovers rock.” The only time he doesn’t sing, he said, is when he has to take a body to the morgue.
Beckford, who lives with his wife and two kids in the Boston neighborhood of Roslindale, has been singing ever since he was a little boy growing up in Jamaica. He used to perform live in nightclubs in Massachusetts and Maine, but had to stop due to panic attacks on stage. After joining the hospital in 1985, he began to sing on the job. First he sang just to comfort himself and piece together original melodies. Then people started to notice. So he started singing to them, not just to himself.
While they aren’t ordered up on an official hospital prescription, Beckford’s serenades can offer patients a kind of inner therapy that’s missing from drugs and surgeries — one that can help patients heal better. Studies have shown that music reduces stress and boosts mood and immunity. And improving patients’ moods as they head into the operating room may improve post-surgical outcomes.
“A doctor has his part to play, a nurse has her part … I’ve got my part to play,” Beckford said in an interview in the hospital’s basement breakroom.
Not every patient wants to hear music, though, so Beckford asks first.
That’s what he did one recent morning in the gloomy nuclear medicine department, where 58-year-old Barbara Tipon lay on a stretcher, waiting for a ride back to her room. Tipon, who moved to Boston from the Bavarian Forest in Germany, showed up at the hospital to get checked for a possible stroke. Beckford walked over and greeted her.
“Hi, I’m Lindon. I’m going to be your chauffeur,” he said. “If you want to stop on the way for a piña colada, you let me know.”
When he offered to sing, Tipon requested Elvis. But Beckford couldn’t think of any Elvis songs — or any other songs for that matter. Nervous, his mind went blank. He rolled her through the corridor, still searching for a song.
“You’re going to feel a little bump on the cobblestone, OK?” he said, still searching.
As he approached the elevator, the stage fright hit a climax: “I can’t remember any song,” he said. “Give me a song, will you?”
That same anxiety used to grip him when he sang in nightclubs, Beckford later said.
“I would forget my lyrics,” he said. The panic would “drive you crazy. You’re nervous … you start a song, but you start it in the wrong key” and can’t finish. “Anxiety can put you in a bad spot.”
It got so bad that Beckford saw a doctor, who prescribed him anti-anxiety pills. But he said he takes them only if he has to perform before a crowd.
When anxiety strikes, he said, “your mind goes haywire, and you have to calm the mind, so [the music] comes to you.”
Back at the elevator, Beckford managed to do that, just enough so that a Kenny Rogers song came to him.
“You taught me everything I know,” Beckford crooned, “can’t imagine loving someone so.” Tipon gazed up from the stretcher, smiling, as Beckford finished that Rogers tune and started another: “While she lay sleeping, I stayed out late at night and played my song …”
The music carried Tipon back to her bedroom for the day, a semi-private room in the new eighth story patient floor that opened in October.
“Thank you for my ride,” Tipon said, glowing. “You make me feel healthy again.”
Beckford eased Tipon into her bed using a mechanical lift: “Make believe you’re in a hammock in Jamaica, right?”
Tipon arrived safely. But Beckford’s work wasn’t done: Right next to Tipon’s bed, another patient spotted him. Vera Vicentini, 63, of Malden, Mass., who was suffering from a brain tumor, recognized Beckford’s voice from when he serenaded her through the hospital on the way to get an MRI.
He sang her a gospel song, she said. “I almost cried. It was amazing.”
Vicentini asked him to sing to her again. This time, the old gospel tune “I Believe” came to him easily. Vincenti joined in, shedding a tear as they sang.
“He’s not just a man that transports us,” she said. “He makes us happy. He makes our day bright.”