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This hospital worker used to think his singing was a 'burden.' Now he uses his voice to calm patients.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 12/27/2019 Elliot Hughes, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
John Melara, who works at Aurora West Allis Medical Center as a imaging patient assistant,  wheels Ricky Myers to her imaging appointment, from the emergency department. Melara sings for patients to and from their medical imaging appointments. © Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel John Melara, who works at Aurora West Allis Medical Center as a imaging patient assistant, wheels Ricky Myers to her imaging appointment, from the emergency department. Melara sings for patients to and from their medical imaging appointments.

WEST ALLIS - Several years ago, John Melara was working in a Pennsylvania hospital as a technician’s assistant, trying to prepare a patient for a CAT scan. But the man was combative and thrashing his elbows about.

Security was busy with a disturbance in the emergency room, leaving Melara alone with his technician coworker to cool things down. With limbs flying, they were desperate, so Melara did something he usually did only in private: he sang.

“I just started singing ‘Brahms Lullaby’ but making up my own lyrics,” Melara said, before softly reprising: “Close your eyes, just relax, it’s a se-ven mi-nute te-est, go to sle-ep.’”

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Melara, who is on the autism spectrum, discovered as a boy that singing helped him manage his emotions and stay calm. It became an essential part of his life, a ritual he performed multiple times a day, whether anyone else was in earshot or not.

But in high school he faced ridicule for singing to himself, and even in a setting like chorus class he was made to feel he wasn’t so talented. So he buried his therapeutic habit for years, unless he was alone.

Until the day came that Brahms Lullaby saved him and his coworker from getting socked by an elbow.

About a decade later, now working a similar job at Aurora West Allis Medical Center, Melara is known and celebrated for crooning as he transports patients to and fro about the hospital, keeping them at ease.

He takes requests. He keeps a four-inch-thick stack of song lyrics printed off Google in the pocket of his scrubs. If he does not know a song, he will sing something similar, then run off to find the lyrics, rehearse and sing the requested song in time for the patients’ return journey to their room.

He’ll sing Ella Fitzgerald, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Run-D.M.C. He’ll sing Christian rock music, Italian opera or whatever’s on your playlist.

“It really is as beneficial to me as it is to the patients, definitely,” Melara said.

The Pocket of Doom

a person holding a piece of paper: John Melara shows the stack of printed song lyrics that he carries in his pocket as he wheels patients to and from their medical imaging appointments at Aurora West Allis Medical Center. © Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel John Melara shows the stack of printed song lyrics that he carries in his pocket as he wheels patients to and from their medical imaging appointments at Aurora West Allis Medical Center.

When Melara, 52, arrives in a patient’s room to wheel them around the hospital, he’ll break out a routine that’s designed to get the green light for singing.

He’ll start with an introduction and offer a range of services to make them comfier, such as grabbing an extra blanket or pillow. Then he gives them a warning: he likes to sing.

“They brace themselves when they hear the word ‘warning,’” Melara said.

“Oh, it’s just singing? That’s fine,” is the usual reply.

If the patient doesn’t have a request, Melara will either fall back on his go-to — Louis Armstrong — “or I’ll just say, ‘Let’s see what’s in the Pocket of Doom’ and pick out a random piece of paper.”

He keeps it laid back. No ostentatious outbursts or choreography. Melara ambles about at a slow pace, both hands on the patients’ cart, with a steady voice breaking up the otherwise quiet hallways.

Jordan Foster, who works closely with Melara as a CAT scan technician, said the patients he delivers for the procedure are usually calmer than others. Staff regularly receive written feedback from patients and he said Melara is often the one with the most praise in their corner of the hospital.

“You see the comments about John, how he relaxes the patients,” Foster said. “He gets the most recognition out of everybody.”

The flood of positive feedback is perhaps somewhat unexpected just given that Melara’s audience is a tough one: stressed, worried, in actual pain, maybe disoriented and probably far from an overall swell mood. There are times, he said, when even a sweet elderly lady will tell him to “shut the (expletive) up.”

But the vast majority of the time it’s smooth sailing. In November, a patient named Ricky Myers requested a Christian rock song that Melara didn’t recognize, so he serenaded her with the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”

“It was wonderful,” she said afterward. “It’ll put you at ease to hear a song you like.”

Finding that audience

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Melara was born on Long Island and has worked in hospitals since 2005. Although he swore off singing to himself in public after high school, he continued to search for the right venues for song.

Earlier in his life, while in the Navy, he said he would search out karaoke bars every time his crew was in port. Outside of work, he’s spent 26 years doing community theater.

Still, by not singing to himself in order to calm his own nerves, Melara said he felt somewhat boxed in. He had been made to feel like his singing was a “burden” on people.

After his improvised Brahms Lullaby deescalated things with that combative patient in Pennsylvania, his coworkers began encouraging the singing for similar situations.

When he moved to a hospital in New Jersey, he met an especially anxious patient before she had surgery. To cheer her up, he told her to imagine the cart was a gondola in Venice and he sang to her in Italian.

Things began snowballing, and even though his other coworkers in New Jersey weren’t as fond of the singing (they thought it made them look bad in comparison), he gathered enough confidence two years ago to tell is soon-to-be-supervisors in West Allis that, if given the job, he would sing.

“This is part of me," he told them. "I’m going to bring this."

Contact Elliot Hughes at elliot.hughes@jrn.com or 414-704-8958. Follow him on Twitter @elliothughes12.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: This hospital worker used to think his singing was a 'burden.' Now he uses his voice to calm patients.

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