Music lady sings a joyful diversion for ill children

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 06, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Anita Rozenel seems to sing in mid-sentence. She's an opera in mid-aria, a rock-and-roll song in mid-riff, a nursery rhyme caught in mid-cuddle.

She charges into a room, all dolled up in bright colors, and adrenalin sweeps the place. Everybody should get in its way.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital the other day, she strolls through children's rooms, and for a few minutes at a time, everybody can forget about white cell counts and oxygen masks and the business of fighting off sickness.

"The music lady's here!" she cries, sweeping into a children's oncology playroom in midmorning. "Anybody up for some music?"

"You gonna dance with us, too?" asks a 4-year-old named Kristen, wearing a red dress and a surgical mask over her mouth to ward off any wayward germs.

Kristen remembers the other day, when Rozenel had everybody dancing the electric slide down a hospital corridor. Now, as she sits down and lugs her portable keyboard onto her legs for a run at "Twist and Shout," she has to save a few inches of spare lap for Kristen.

Three boys look up from the little dune buggies they're building at a work table and smile broadly. They're putting the pieces together with glue, which they're dispensing with hospital syringes.

A few feet away, a television set is showing a cartoon. Nobody's watching. Voices are singing, people are playing. A lilting rhythm sweeps the room.

"Shake it up, baby," Rozenel sings, mainly on-key.

"Twist and shout," hollers a boy with a smooth and shiny head.

Anxious mothers sit around the edges of the room, watching their children and fretting about the future. Rozenel deals only with the moment, trying to slip a little happiness between the cracks.

For a living, she teaches music at Hernwood and Franklin elementary schools in Baltimore County. For emotional uplift -- her own and the kids' -- she's a volunteer music lady several times a week at Hopkins.

"It started four summers ago," says Rozenel, 38. "I called one day to make a contribution and suddenly found myself blurting out, 'Do you need volunteers?' I had my own sickness, a chemical imbalance, which is now fine. But while I was sick I said to myself, 'If I get well, I'm going to try to bring a few smiles.'

"I was coming down here [to Hopkins] summers for a while, but then one of my students was diagnosed with cancer three days after kindergarten started. So I started coming here all year 'round and checking on her."

The little girl, Amanda Bradel, died a few weeks back. Rozenel talks about her and fights back her emotions.

"One Saturday afternoon," she remembers, "Amanda was in a private room, and we decided to have our own concert. We sang every song we knew. Then Amanda's mom and aunt said they wanted to sing along.

"Amanda said, 'Did my music teacher come all the way here for you two to sing?' "

The message is clear: Each child brings a special unself-conscious courage to the fight.

All Rozenel wants to do is lift a few spirits over the rough spots.

Here's one: She's just finished a romping version of "Lean on Me," when a cry comes from a little girl in the next room. Nurses are trying to give her a needle. Rozenel flits in, carrying a page of colorful clown stickers.

"Hi," she says. "I'm the music lady."

The little girl continues struggling against the nurses.

"You want a sticker?" says Roze

nel.

The little girl looks at her, giving up the struggle for a moment. A doctor simultaneously approaches.

"Oh," Rozenel says, looking at the doctor, "I suppose you want a sticker, too."

She's just trying to distract everybody in the room from the difficult stuff. As Rozenel makes her rounds this morning, you sense a tremendous warmth in all of the children's rooms, clear evidence that someone here understands the nature of the human psyche in all of this, the need for a sweet, embracing atmosphere.

In one playroom, kids gather around a rabbit in a large cage. Some have entered the room pushing their own units of metal and wires and glass, and tubes running into their bodies.

And then Rozenel sits on a big water bed, and some of the kids gather near her, and they begin to sing:

If you're happy and you know it/

Clap your hands . . .

Moments like this help everybody slip past the unhappiness: the kids fighting back the pain, the parents with their worries, the professionals reaching for answers.

And Anita Rozenel, trying to sing her own little song.

"What I do," she says, "isn't much. The kids do more for me than I do for them. They bring such joy. They teach you about courage and positive attitude and helping one another. They're there for each other so much. And every time they smile, I internalize it."

And when she does, it comes out of her like a song. It isn't medicine, exactly, but it does have its healing power.

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