Pinky Pie

St. James Infirmary, Compassionate Notification & Me

Posted on: July 6, 2010

One of the many renditions of St. James Infirmary

For someone who has gone through cancer treatment in the last year, you would think a couple of my favorite activities in life would have fallen out of favor.

But they have not.  Still one of my favorite songs is “St. James Infirmary,” which is about a man who goes down to the hospital and makes a sad discovery.

There are many versions of this 18th century traditional English folk that were made famous in the United States by Louis Armstrong in 1928. Many others “covered” it, including Cab Calloway, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, King Oliver, Artie Shaw, Big Mama Thornton, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Stan Kenton, Lou Rawls, The Limeliters, Bobby Bland, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, “Spider” John Koerner, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Animals, and The White Stripes.

Of course, I love it when Muddy Flats and the Hepcats sing it, as it’s my husband’s band. They save it for when I arrive and then Dick says something like, “It’s my wife’s favorite” or “Honey, they’re singing our song.” It gets a laugh.

Think blues when you read these words:

I’m goin’ down to St. James Infirmary,

See my baby there;

She’s stretched out on a long, white table,

She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,

Wherever she may be,

She will search this wide world over,

But she’ll never find another sweet man like me.

As I said, it’s pretty weird for a woman who has been through cancer treatment, but hey, that’s me. And my husband noted the words, “another sweet man like me.” The person singing the song clearly uses the line to promote himself, not mourn his sweetie.

Men.  🙂

The second incongruous activity that I love is the annual Compassionate Death Notification Program for new medical residents at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse. After seeing a video that shows a horrific notification and one showing a compassionate one,  these new doctors practice telling volunteers that their loved one has died.

This is my acting gig of the year.We are supposed to respond as we would as a loved ones. I can’t cry on cue, but can be obnoxious on cue.

The scenario is always a sudden death, usually a spouse or parent dying of a heart attack after being brought to the hospital with chest pains. When the resident enters the room, I jump up and tell the him or her that this time “Harvey” and I are going to really exercise and eat better. I keep talking not letting this resident get a word in edgewise.

Meanwhile, if I have someone else is in the room with me as a family member, we’ll bicker back and forth. This year, I had a “daughter” who fiddled with my phone acting  totally bored.

We were a tough room. Note to readers: this was all acting and this uncaring person was not my real daughter, who would care a lot.

But the attending physician who was with the residents said it was also realistic. Families don’t always agree and can have unexpected reactions, including denial and insensitivity.

I always give positive comments to the resident afterwards about what he or she did that was helpful. I’m not all bad. I have met some wonderful young doctors doing this role-playing each year.

You may wonder how I can do this? It’s not about me and there is a higher good to helping the residents.

After the program last Thursday, I remembered how I had planned to write about St. James Infirmary in my blog. Next year, I think we’ll send the lyrics for the song in advance of the program so they can  sing the news to me.


1 Response to "St. James Infirmary, Compassionate Notification & Me"

I cannot image how difficult it is for doctors to share that information so I’m sure they appreciate you giving them a show to learn the best ways to calm the situation. Another great way that you can help the community is by sharing your cancer experience at The aim is to find any gaps in care so that all needs are met not just the physical but also the social and emotional.

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