By Chad Ashe
Army Maj. Douglas Westbrook, a nurse anesthetist at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital in Missouri, finishes his shift in the operating room. It’s been a busy day and a reset is desperately needed.
Taking the elevator ride to the lobby is the first step in a familiar routine he started back in 2006, when he first performed for patients in El Paso, Texas. He surveys the room, finds the best spot to get the acoustics just right, and picks out a song in his head — something he hopes the audience needs to hear. After a readjust of the mask he’s ready to play.
This is his song.
He said when he was younger in his hometown of Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona his mom never had to wonder where he was as a kid because he was always singing. Then, at age 12, he taught himself to play his mother’s guitar.
“My mom had a guitar and told me if I learned to play it, I could have it,” he said.
He sings now for a different audience: the patients and visitors of the hospital.
He said he sings for people who need calm while in a stressful place in their lives.
“A hospital exists to take care of physical needs [by and large]. Mental and emotional needs cannot be forgotten,” he said. “A hospital environment is a stressful place because we can see people at their worst and when they are often worried about themselves or loved ones.”
Westbrook sings on his break, when and where he can.
“I try to play most days that we are not overly busy in the operating room,” he said. “I play for the recovery area sometimes.”
Sitting front row to his performance is Kye Rocker, a familiar face to the hospital employees. As a contractor charged with operating the lobby kiosk where many stop in for coffee and sandwiches, she also witnesses hundreds of customers entering the hospital daily for care.
She said she never forgets a name or face, or the sound of Westbrook’s guitar playing.
“It’s uplifting when I hear him play,” she said, adding she cheered and clapped for him the first time she heard him perform.
Westbrook has more than 18 years of service — he commissioned as a staff sergeant in 2009 — and plans to settle down permanently in this area with his family who loves the military community here. All of the artists Westbrook covers have songs he feels speak to the heart of service members.
“Most of us [soldiers] have lost someone, often in combat-related incidents,” he said. “I love to be able to play requests. I’m not always able but it is a fun experience for me when I can play something that has specific meaning and brings a specific memory or joy to someone in particular.”
Westbrook said he loves playing Garth Brooks’ songs, but newer songs enter his repertoire as well.
“‘Memories’ by Maroon 5 is one of my current favorites and speaks to the heart,” he said.
“I enjoy many types of music but especially love the storytelling and powerful emotion that can be felt when music is played,” he said.
“I think we need room in our lives for things a little out of the ordinary. I’m glad to be able to provide that. I love to make people smile and laugh and feel that boosts my health as well as theirs.”
Rocker said she feels Westbrook’s hobby helps the patients of the hospital.
“He tries to make it special for them in times like these” she said. “Music makes everybody happy.”
This story originally appeared on DVIDShub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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