It may be Sunday. It may be Tuesday. The only safe bet is that it’s some time between dawn and dusk. All is a blur in a semi-conscious state of post-operative recovery.
The guy with the newly rebuilt heart who’s being wheeled on the gurney into the intensive care recovery unit is just about as certain of whether or not he’s alive as he is of what’s going on around him. He has more tubes and wires running out of him than the international space station and the only sounds in this semi-darkened state are muffled voices and the faint clicking and whirring of life monitoring machines.
Then it happens: A smiling visage covered by a mop of silver hair appears overhead.
“Hi, I’m Bruce,” the face says. “I’m a nursing assistant and I’ll be here to assist you. Would you like your hair brushed? Do you like opera? I’m a coloratura soprano.”
The next thing the guy with all the tubes and wires hears is a whistled version of the overture to some obscure Romanian opera. Bruce unpuckers to name the opera and for all the world it sounds like he says, The Rape of Count Vlad’s Harem.
As Mr. Quadruple Bypass and all the accompanying hardware are slid from gurney to bed, he’s thinking, “Either I’ve died and gone to heaven and this guy is St. Peter or somehow I’ve been cast in a Federico Fellini movie.”
“Umph, oorg, glug urgle, gloog,” the guy manages to emit.
“No,” says Bruce, “I don’t know that one. But how about Westside Story?”
So it goes in intensive care of East Jefferson General Hospital day after day, night after night, whenever Bruce d’Fonseca – undeniably the world’s most inveterate whistler – is on duty.
Amidst nurses scurrying about, surgeons admiring their roadmap handiwork on their patient’s chest and smiling family members waving from behind a glass wall, one fully expects to see Rita Moreno lead a line of dancers through the room as d’Fonseca whistles, “I like to be in America … okay by me in America …”
“I whistle all the time,” the 60-year-old d’Fonseca says. “I handle maybe 30 beds a night and if I see a patient’s depressed or lonely, I’ll just ask them what their favorite music is and if I could whistle it for them. When I do, most of them really perk up. It’s great therapy for them and for me.”
Nor are the happy whistler’s renditions of La Traviata and other requested tunes confined to ICU at the sprawling Jefferson Parish hospital. Selections from d’Fonseca’s work can be heard in the lunch line in the cafeteria, elevators, linen closets or just about any thoroughfare leading into or out of the hospital. D’Fonseca once serenaded former hospital CEO, Peter Betts, and the entire board of directors at an afternoon meeting.
“Mr. Betts asked me to do a few songs,” d’Fonseca says. “I was supposed to do three but I did 13 or 14. I went on for 45 minutes. They loved it. I got the longest ovation. I was thrilled. Oh, you just wouldn’t believe.”
D’Fonseca began whistling while in his native Suriname, a tiny drop of land on the eastern-most coast of South America that was once known as Dutch Guiana. While hunkered down over a radio with his grandfather listening to the local station’s Sunday morning offerings of opera young Bruce began whistling along and trying to find his operatic niche among the mellifluous voices of Enrico Caruso, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas cascading from the little box in the corner of the room.
“It was when I walked in and heard Lily Pons singing ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz,” d’Fonseca says. “It was incredible. Astonishing! I was hooked. The coloratura soprano! I knew in an instant this is where I belonged. I didn’t even know what a coloratura soprano was up until that time. I ran out of the room yelling, ‘Mom! Mom! You’ve got to come hear this! You must come hear this!’ My mother had a beautiful voice. She wasn’t a professional but she sang and I knew she could appreciate what I was hearing. I had never heard anything so beautiful. And I guess you could say from that moment on I was hooked!”
As he relates that morning with Lily Pons and his mother, tears begin to well up in d’Fonseca’s eyes. He reaches up and wipes them away and apologizes, “You must forgive me,” he says. “I get so emotional when I think of that day and how beautiful the true coloratura soprano voice is.”
But it was not to be. Try as hard as he might during his Suriname days, Bruce d’Fonseca couldn’t squeeze a coloratura soprano sound from his bass voice. Then it hit him with all the force of, well, a Maria Callas high note.
“Whistle,” d’Fonseca says as if he is summing up his life’s accomplishments in one word. “When I whistled I had more range. I knew I could hit very high notes when whistling. Something I couldn’t do with my voice. I never had any tutors. I knew from the beginning I had to train myself. And I did, all the time, when I was at home, when I was working. Every chance I got, I’d whistle.”
After holding down enough odd jobs to fill a classified advertising section in The New York Times, d’Fonseca buckled down and became a registered nurse in Suriname. At 27, with RN certificate in hand, he headed for the U.S. intent on a career in nursing.
“My diploma from Suriname wasn’t the same here in the U.S. So, I studied here and took the test. I failed it and tried again and failed again. The psychology courses are what hurt me. Finally, I became content to be a nurse’s assistant and it’s been a good life. I think I have more freedom to whistle to the patients as a nurse’s assistant. I ask them, ‘Are you Catholic?’ If so, I may whistle Ave Maria? If they’re Baptist, I whistle a hymn to them. Of course, I whistle only if the nurses let me. They’re the bosses, you know. Most of the time they do. I think it helps the patient.
I see them at a time when they’re most depressed. What better way of bringing them out of it than to whistle to them.”
D’Fonseca has had a few gigs around town, including a song at a church and a performance at a Jefferson Parish fund raiser where, “ It was the only time in my life I wore a tuxedo. Of course I was the only whistler. I did Madame Butterfly and a little girl who also performed and I were the only ones to get standing ovations.”
What’s next in the career of the happy whistler?
“I want to record a CD,” he says. “I’d love to do that. It would be a big seller, I’m certain. Who else has whistled an entire CD? I’m just afraid. You sign a contract with a big recording company and they own you, you know. And I hear so many times, where the music overpowers the singer. The [music] mixers have to be very careful.
Often they’re not and a beautiful voice is just covered over. I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. In the meantime,” he sighs, “I’m very happy whistling to the patients in ICU. It makes me happy to make them happy.”
So, if you ever find yourself coming out of a one of those post-heart surgery stupor states and you hear the whistled tones of Ave Maria wafting overhead, be not afraid.
It isn’t St. Peter. It’s only Bruce d’Fonseca.
And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to thank Lily Pons.