Prose Category Winner: The Pianist—The 2022 Medical Humanities Writing Award Winners

Every year, ACEP’s Medical Humanities Section hosts its Writing and Visual Arts Awards as part of the section’s mission to promote the medical humanities as a source and means of lifelong learning for emergency physicians. The winners of the 2022 prose and poetry categories are featured below, and the 2023 contest will open this summer. Connect with other emergency physicians who are interested in fine arts, literature, and the humanistic social sciences by plugging into the Medical Humanities section at acep.org/humanities.

Prose Category Winner

by Rachel Kowalsky, MD

Solomon was fifty-five now, and done with the constraints of tempo and time. He worked at Mercy Hospital, where nobody cared if he played forte instead of piano, pried open a crescendo like a piece of fruit and mined it for its very seeds and pulp, or held a resounding note a few beats longer than specified by the dead man who’d written it. The notes on the page were a conversation, that’s what, between the living and the dead. Inflecting them with his own thoughts and feelings did not make him a jazz pianist (as had been suggested at conservatory); it confirmed his humanity, signaled that he was alive.

Mercy was a paying gig, rare in the world of hospital music. There were three pianists on the payroll, and a violinist who came once a week—or had come. Mack had been let go. The hospital was in the red, and Mack was the most recent hire.

The virus was the culprit. It changed everything. Early on, Linda from Special Events had snapped a mask onto Solomon’s face (he was grateful, masks were hard to come by), and the next day she click-clacked across the busy lobby while Mack was finishing up his shift. She took him aside, saying whatever one says to fire a hospital violinist. He shuffled out the revolving door with shoulders hunched, clutching his used Cremona to his chest.

Soon the hospital lobby was transformed, the café tables removed and replaced by temperature checkpoints. Solomon’s Steinway was downsized to a boxy upright, and pushed against the wall to make space for the little circles where people had to stand. He sat facing outward, back to the wall. When more space was needed, he was displaced towards the northern exit, by the door to the new white refrigerated trucks. A crew of men erected plexiglass around him.