Visit the coma ward at Memorial Plaza Hospital in Dallas, TX, and you may notice it sounds a little, well, different than most medical facilities of its kind. The reason?
“All of the patients on this floor are learning to play ‘Wild World’ by Cat Stevens on acoustic guitar,” says Nurse Mantha Brlewski, the mastermind behind a revolutionary new experimental therapy for those in comas and persistent vegetative states.
Nurse Brlewski had only been working in the ward a few months when she got the idea to teach the song – a highlight off of 1970’s “Tea for the Tillerman” and longtime feature of a 4-song “70s Mellow” playlist on Brlewski’s personal iTunes – to the deeply comatose. Since then, Brlewski has purchased six acoustic guitars and standardized her methodology.
Today, she works tirelessly around the clock, moving from bed to bed to teach completely non-responsive men and women of all kinds how to play the eight-chord, 4-minute tune.
“To me, it’s about enrichment. It’s true that most patients still can’t play the song at all without my help,” says Brlewski, as she preps Brian Veldt for a lesson (Mr. Veldt slipped into unconsciousness after a massive stroke in 2013). “But that doesn’t change the fact that ‘Wild World’ is a timeless folk rock song with an iconic ‘la-la-la-la’ intro, a genre-defining ‘deedle-deedle-deedle-deedle’ chorus riff, and great lyrics about getting by in a world that – let’s face it – has gone completely wild.”
Inquiries into the effects of coerced guitar playing on sufferers of brain injury remain inconclusive, and Nurse Brlewski’s experimental therapy certainly has its share of doubters.
Brlewski, for her part, is undaunted: “It’s not that different than talking to the patients, which I think most experts would agree is very beneficial indeed,” she says as she forces an acoustic guitar between Mr. Veldt’s chest and arms, mashes his fingers onto the fretboard to make a chord, and puppets his other arm so that it sort of strums the strings. “I just took it one step further.”
While word of her therapy spreads slowly but surely, Brlewski looks to the future: “Part of me hopes that Yusef Islam himself will come by and see the work we’re doing here,” she says before looking around the room to make sure everyone heard that she called the musician by the name he took when he converted to Islam in 1978.
Hunter is a writer, cartoonist, and UCB performer with an average build and no interest in fighting. You’re politely encouraged to visit his twitter: @tomhunternelson