D.J. & HARRY (& TONY & ROSE)
They’re an unlikely duo, a young 23-year-old woman from a small town in North Carolina and an 84-year-old man from a rural village in India. But when D.J. Poplin began visiting Harishchandra “Harry” Mehta as part of her VNA Music Therapy internship, she found they had something in common – love for a good song.
“Would you like country or rock?” D.J., now a regular at the Mehta household in Vero Beach, asks Harry one afternoon in mid-November as she plays a few warm-up chords on her guitar.
“Country!” exclaims Harry, who was diagnosed last summer with stage four colon cancer and is on VNA Hospice.
“Great, we’ll do some Hank Williams,” D.J. replies playfully as she points to a picture of the famous country musician on her phone. “He died in 1953” she says to Harry, in addition to a few more facts about the late musician, and then begins belting, “Hey, good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?” while Harry plays a drum, a gift from D.J. The two musicians are accompanied by Harry’s wife of 54 years, Rose, and their adult son, Tony, who both bang away on drums that D.J. brings for them during her weekly visit.
When D.J. is finished singing the iconic country song and everyone stops playing their instruments, Harry then leads them in a traditional Indian song. “It’s a family affair,” says a happy, relaxed D.J.
But she wasn’t always this laid-back. When D.J. first started visiting Harry at his in-law suite where he and Rose live behind Tony’s house, she was nervous. “I’m a country girl. I didn’t know anything about Indian music, and I was like, what am I going to do? So, I did my research and met Harry and Rose, and Harry was like ‘I like American music and I’d like to know more about the American culture.’ And I was like ‘perfect, I know plenty of this.’ And we started doing sessions,” says D.J. “Once we built some rapport, and we felt more comfortable, Harry said, ‘Can I share some songs from India’ and I was like ‘sure, please I’d be more than happy to.’ So, what we’ll do now, we take turns sharing songs and doing translation of the lyrics and talk about our cultures, our favorite holidays, how we celebrate weddings, how we celebrate Independence days.”
This kind of cultural exchange has created a special bond between D.J. and Harry as well as the rest of the Mehta clan. It’s clear the intern’s upbeat presence, musical talent and natural compassion have made her an unofficial member of the Mehta family. And Tony believes D.J. has greatly contributed to his father’s health, which has improved significantly since he was initially diagnosed with colon cancer. At his worst, Harry was in the hospital taking oral medicine and getting blood transfusions; his speech was impeded and overall, he was feeling horrible. But he still wanted to go home, and against his doctors wishes, he did.
Clearly, it was the right choice. “He no longer slurs…he’s pretty stabilized, and his zest for life is just incredible, especially his love for music,” says an appreciative Tony. But he’s not surprised at D.J.’s dedication, because this wasn’t his family’s first experience with a VNA team member. Last December, Tony was diagnosed with COVID-19, and a contact tracer from the health department called and informed him that his parents needed to be tested. “They said, ‘You’ve got to get them tested’ and I said, ‘I’ve got nobody else to drive them… can you send someone to test them at home?’ and the person at the health department said, ‘Nobody has asked us that before’ and I said, ‘Well I’m asking,’ and a day or two later somebody came from the VNA.”
Tony recalls how incredibly thankful he and his parents, who tested negative for COVID-19, were for VNA’s services. But they didn’t think they’d be needing them again only six months later.
In addition to D.J, Harry’s VNA Hospice services include a nurse, Debbie, who visits twice a week and checks his vitals and overall health, and three VNA home health aides, Dana, Rebecca and Crystal, who alternate visits three times a week and provide bathing. Harry and his family have grown fond of all their VNA caregivers and are grateful for their help, but their unabashed favorite is their musical intern.
As part of her internship, D.J. has been videotaping the music sessions. She plans on compiling them into one complete video called a legacy project that she’s going to gift to the Mehtas. She anticipates finishing the project toward the end of her internship, an experience she’s been thoroughly enjoying. “It has been amazing! I love hearing Harry sing different songs each week and giving me a translation of the lyrics. Indian music is way more beautiful and intricate than I expected it to be,” she says.
And there’s no doubt that Harry enjoys their musical sessions too. As Tony points out, “People ask him how he’s doing and he says, ‘I’m getting better every day.’ So, one day I ask him ‘Dad, why are you telling people you’re getting better every day? You know what’s going on,’ and he got quiet for a moment, and he said, ‘I know what’s going on but don’t remind me.’ I said, ‘Ok,’ and realized, wow, this is not somebody denying what’s happening, this is somebody accepting what’s happening but still maintaining a positive attitude and making every day count.”