Children of the Tenth Floor

By Jourdan Urbach

I wish I could remember how they looked—Timmy, Jessica and Jason, the children who moved me to take Children Helping Children (CHC) to the next level; the ones I think about every time I step on a stage to perform.  I try to see Timmy beyond the web of carefully coiled bandages that peaked in a tuft of white thrums covering the massive incisions on his head, just days after Dr. Epstein used a cavitron to liquefy his tumor and give Timmy many more deserved years. I see his lithe eight year old body scoot out from under the covers of his hospital bed on the 10th floor of Beth Israel North somewhere in the middle of my best a cappella rendition of Monte’s Czardas. What was he doing just days after surgery? His two hands began tracing “Js” in the air as he conducted the rest of Czardas—his first gig! The joy, the giggling and clapping that followed this bedside performance were enough to keep me playing for the children of the 10th floor for another two hours. I was seven years old. I believed I could make a difference.

I know it seems to have been a bit young to be thinking of other children’s pain, but I was a passionate idealist…and some things have never changed. I had eagerly read every word of Gifts of Time, the autobiography by Dr. Fred Epstein, arguably the greatest pediatric neurosurgeon in the world, and felt compelled to meet him. I hand-wrote a letter requesting an interview. I still remember how it began: “Dear Dr. Epstein, My name is Jourdan Urbach. I am seven years old and a devoted neuroscience student and concert violinist.” Years later Dr. Epstein still talked about the opening of this letter with great amusement and affection. He called and invited me to Beth Israel Medical Center for a talk. After a two hour interview and a tour of the neurosurgical ICU, I turned to him and announced that I wanted to help these kids. The only tool I had at my age was music, since I was a little young for medical school. At that moment my musical philanthropic organization, Children Helping Children, was born.

Although I cannot see a face when I remember Jessica, attached as she was to tubes and wires and machinery that breathed and pulsed for her, she is a presence in my life. I had returned to the 10th floor playroom for a spring performance. Every ambulatory child in the pediatric neurosurgery ward was present. There was anticipation of some temporal enjoyment, a little contagious enthusiasm and a reminder of what’s outside that ICU door. Grave illness leads quickly to feelings of abandonment, and although I was only seven, I could not bear the thought of these kids giving up on life and hope. Life holds too many possibilities. In the back of the room was Jessica, small and misshapen, contorted and motionless in her wheelchair and hooked up to more monitors than any patient I had seen. I began with something sweet and calming: Gluck’s Melodie. I then tore off into the perpetual motion of The Carmen Fantasy. Suddenly a barrage of beepers and alarms went off in the back of the room. Two residents and a nurse pushed through the other children, racing towards the sound. It was Jessica, and she had moved. How can I explain what that glorious moment meant to me? I continued playing as they wheeled her out with great rejoicing and excitement.
Jason touched me in a very different way. He was thirteen and suffered from a recalcitrant spinal tumor—in and out of surgery three times. He always asked for extra pillows when I came to his room to play, so he could be propped up to watch my fingers. He was a pianist who took great comfort in Chopin, but also loved the intricate harmonies of Bach’s violin partitas. He felt sick inside about not being able to practice for weeks on end while recovering from surgery and treatments. There was no piano on the 10th floor. By the spring of 1999 I had figured out a way to make his world a little brighter: CHC’s first fundraiser. I sent a letter to Jayson Stoller, the principal of Roslyn High School, requesting the use of the auditorium for a benefit concert to purchase a piano for Beth Israel Medical Center’s pediatric neurosurgery division. He did not let me down. In April, 1999, renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Epstein of Beth Israel, my friend and mentor, walked into Roslyn High School with fifty members of his staff and joined the sold out house to buy Jason and all of the children in the ward a piano for the 10th floor playroom. The event spoke volumes to me. If a child believes, anything is possible. We raised that money, and thousands more to be used for music therapy in the ward. Dr. Epstein himself funded the next concert at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. We began setting money aside for a neurosurgery scholarship fund so disadvantaged children from around the globe could benefit from Dr. Epstein’s visionary surgical techniques.

Jason lost his battle with brain cancer one year later. But this is not a sad story; it’s one of the happiest ones I know, because when I was seven, he and other children compelled me to think bigger, harder and more compassionately until the seeds of Children Helping Children burgeoned into more than a philanthropic organization—it became a movement in medicine and music. By the time I made my Lincoln Center debut at age eleven, it became apparent that I could use my name as a headline performer to draw large audiences at major concert halls throughout the country to benefit medical research and equity in healthcare. I enlisted entire symphony orchestras (500 professional musicians) to join my performances at halls like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, raising over $4.6 million to date. I have met with Senators Hillary Clinton and Bob Dole, and former Governor Pataki to discuss the future of healthcare fundraising in our country. I have formed chapters of CHC all over the country so that now, in an organized effort, hundreds of young musicians nationally are donating their talents for the future of medicine, participating in my Concerts for a Cure. They arechanging the world, and patrons are flocking to the concert halls in droves to support their talents and the future of healthcare fundraising.

I am still an idealist with a voice and convictions born of very particular experiences. This year I am taking CHC international, founding satellite chapters in El Salvador, Guatemala and Buenos Aires. The young members of my El Salvador chapter asked me to help build a clinic in poverty stricken Joya Grande. Because they didn’t have funds to rent a concert hall and employ an orchestra for a full-scale benefit, I took the initiative to design a unique framework: a two-tiered concert series in Houston and Manhattan. I contacted the Doctor’s Orchestra of Houston and prevailed upon them to perform gratis for the Houston benefit; I then led the Salvadoran teens through a letter-writing campaign to ensure a paying audience. The next step required time-sensitive meetings with the El Salvadoran Consul in NYC. I had to secure a performance date at the consulate in March, 2009 before El Salvador’s elections, because a victory by the leftist party would forestall plans for the benefit. My persistence paid off: the concert for Joya Grande Clinic is booked for March 5, 2009.

I can’t always remember their features or the color of their eyes, but I feel their presence—the children of the 10th floor: in every overture, in the first bow I take, in the last kiss to the balcony. They made me the young leader I have become and showed me that kids can move small mountains with big hearts. I owe them mine.