Heart transplant recipient played ukulele, sang a duet before surgery

By HALEY YAMADA, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — A moment that’s heartwarming in more ways than one: Hawaiian Musician Sean Tiwanak sang and strummed his ukulele to “Stand By Me” in his Cedar-Sinai hospital room with Dr. Lily Stern two days before his life-saving heart transplant.

Stern, donning a face shield and mask for COVID-19 protection, stood at Tiwanak’s bedside to harmonize.

 Days later, Tiwanak was successfully recovering from his surgery and also an internet sensation. The 55-second video had gone viral and garnered more than 31,000 views on Instagram alone.

“I know what it is to be blessed now,” said Tiwanak, 53, in a statement released by Cedar-Sinai Hospital. “Everything I do from here on out is a result of this wonderful gift.”

Tiwanak, who had his heart transplant on Aug. 8, said that his time in the hospital was lonely. Due to COVID-19 protocols, everyone who came into his hospital room was “gowned up.” To feel better, he asked someone to sing with him.

When Stern came to his bedside, he said in a statement, “The first thing she did was hold my hand. And I think that connection really gave me a lot of comfort, and that what I needed — the moral, human support that you don’t necessarily get in a clinical environment.”

“We just instantly started singing together. And when you do that, when you sing with somebody, you kind of create this little space that is sort like a communion in a way. And it was awesome. And she’s so talented and sings so well that it just raised my spirits,” Tiwanak added.

Stern, a second-year cardiology fellow who plans to be a heart transplant specialist, said the doctor-patient connection uplifted her.

“I was just riding so high. Leaving the room, I felt like, ‘This is why I went into medicine,” Stern said in a statement.

A musician herself, Stern said the nurses had told her that Tiwanak loved to play ukulele and sing for the doctors, nurses and hospital staff. After her nightly rounds, Stern said she decided to go back to Tiwanak’s room for a duet.

The impromptu moment has since been viewed by thousands on social media. The song even made a newscast back in Tiwanak’s native Hawaii.

Tiwanak, who has struggled with heart disease for 15 years, had recently become gravely ill, according to a statement released by the Cedar Sinai Hospital.

“For somebody to be able to do that, before having a heart transplantation, and on the brink of basically dying — it’s pretty remarkable,” wrote Dr. Fardad Esmailian, who performed Tiwanak’s transplant surgery.

Once Tiwanak has fully recovered, he said he plans to perform with Stern again one day.

“We both keep saying that when he gets better, we’re going to play music together,” she said.

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