When Words Fail

“When words fail, music speaks.”
[Hans Christian Anderson]

” I was trying to remember the last time I did anything for the first time.”

Doctor Richard Fratianne, a recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Trophy, founder of Cleveland MetroHealth’s Burn Care and Level 1 Trauma Center, had been first at many, many things that matter. But, to quote Monty Python, this was something “completely different.” This caused him some concern. This was the first time he would expose his soul with his music, the first time to record. “Don’t laugh at me,” he insisted more than once. As if I could ever laugh at him about anything.

“Doc Frat” and I got to know each another in 1973 when he whispered in my left ear, “Joe, I’m Doctor Fratianne. You’re in the hospital and you’ve been hurt very badly. I’m going to have to take off your right hand, and probably your left one too, but I’ll try to save your left hand.” Forced by his calling to expose me to six-months of daily tortures, I was but one of more than 25,000 burn patients who came to owe him a debt of love.

Forty-five years later, I overheard him playing piano at one of the Adult Burn Survivor’s Retreats when he was seeking a moment of solace and thought no one was within earshot. Sitting at an old, upright piano standing against a brick wall, he found a few minutes for reflection. Self-taught, learning “by ear,” his style was intensely personal. He had no formal lessons, didn’t read music, didn’t know the names of all the chords he played. “I just know how I want it to sound.”

Encouraging him to record his favorite songs for family and friends, he finally came to feel it sounded like an idea who’s time had come. At 89 years of age, the time for this “first,” was now. For more than two hours, 22 tunes from the music of “The Great American Songbook” flowed from his fingers. I was in awe.

Watching his purposeful movement across the keys, I reflected on the fact that these were the same fingers that took my arm and other portions of my burned body; the same fingers that gave me, and so many others, life. For a moment, it was staggering, sucking the wind from my sails. I closed my eyes and, to quote Frank Sinatra at the end of “Angel Eyes,” one of Doc’s favorite songs, “I just disappeared.”

From Cinders to Butterflies available from Amazon

There comes an end to what words can say. That’s where the music begins. Doc only stopped playing long enough to chide himself for “thinking too much,” or playing from too much emotion. He just wanted to be a conduit, something through whom the art of it all might simply, flow. He was the same way when it came to the healing arts of Science.

As a conduit of Grace, he believes the “whole” person must be addressed; body, mind and spirit. “Cinders to Butterflies” is how he spiritualizes his mission to burn survivors. Pioneering new concepts in healing for more than 50 years, Doc’s insistence in ministering to the spirit of his broken patients caused him to “adopt” every one of them, revealing his true “art.”

Doc is one of those folks for whom being a Physician is more about calling than it ever was about vocation. In his youth, he wanted to serve the very poorest of the poor in places like Africa or India. His dear wife, Mary, asked, “Do we really need to go around the world to serve the poor? There are many, many poor right here in Cleveland.” There are 25,000 plus burn survivors who thank Mary for her gentle influence. Because of that, we are alive. 

We only did one take for each song and only 15 made the final cut. Because of those limitations, musical purists might notice an error or two along the way. So be it. “Scrutinologists,” such people cling to the minutia for warmth. This is not for them. This is for posterity, providing a monumental “first” for us both.

Finally, pausing to think about what he might do next, Doc stared down at the piano and whispered, “I’ve got to do something for Mary.”  When words fail, music speaks.

These personal recordings of Doctor Richard Fratianne are for listening purposes only and are not intended for commercial use or distribution. 

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