- Sam Trout
Al Cohen never asked to be the keeper of half the free world's Elvis kitsch. He's a distinguished pediatric brain surgeon, for chrissake.
But something about him must say gold lamé and rhinestones. Because, when grateful patients want to thank him, they don't send flowers. They channel the King.
"It's like a satellite office of Graceland in here," says Cohen, as an Elvis clock with a movable pelvis swivels out the seconds. On his desk, right where the tasteful brass nameplate should go, there's an Elvis lamp. Trimmed in pink chiffon, it looks like something smuggled out of Pee-wee's Playhouse.
The lamp was his first Elvis-centered acquisition, courtesy of a patient whose gratitude could not be conveyed by a mere fountain pen or monogrammed paperweight.
Cohen was truly moved. But he got on with his life -- at least until a second Elvis lamp arrived, from a family named King. "It came with a note," says Cohen, who works at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital and is known to kids as "Big Al." "Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll. Alan Cohen, King of Neurosurgery." He placed the lamps on opposite ends of his desk, "like the Twin Towers or something."
That's when the gift floodgates opened, and Cohen's life became one big Las Vegas wedding shower. A portrait of the supposedly dead rock star, his eyes a supernatural shade of blue suede, hangs in a place of honor above the couch. A patient's mom scored it especially for Big Al. "You saved Michael's life one year ago today," she wrote. "I am forever grateful."
Though Big Al only pretends to be a fan of the Big E, he doesn't try to hide the trailer-park tchotchkes. There's nothing like a little red velour and sequins to ease a distraught family's tension.
"The whole philosophy of the office is to try to be a bit more human," he says. "When your child has a brain tumor, I don't think there's anything more anxiety-producing than to sit in a doctor's office with death all but staring you in the face."
Not that Big Al is the unapproachable type. A medium-sized man, at least to grownups, he's handsome in a goofy sort of way. He teaches a course on compassionate bedside manner to medical students. The nurses joke that he has so many operating-room visitors, they've asked the construction department to install some fold-out bleachers.
"He's a thrill," says Nurse Coordinator Lisa Chapman. "He's a wonderful fellow and a good man. And his taste in [operating-room] music is fair." Unlike the back surgeon who has one CD, "and he's had it 20 years. It has 'Happy Trails to You' on it. The Collected Songs of Roy Rogers or something."
A few years ago, hoping to share some of the King's magic, Big Al fashioned a shrine to the bloated demigod. He placed it on a little table in the hospital lobby. Unfortunately, the Elvis shrine turned out to be bigger than the one the hospital erected for another King -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"There was a lot of to-do," recalls Helen Novotney, Cohen's secretary and cohort in pop-culture pranks. The next year, Al was relegated to lighting a simple candle. A resident taped a note to his office door: "Closed in Observance of Elvis's Death."
For the "really tough cases," he brings out the velvet Elvis for a special viewing. Or he'll slip in a "Love Me Tender" or two on his homemade mix tapes, played during surgeries.
"You can choreograph an operation on the brain, because there are different stages," he remarks. "Looking through the microscope, you'd want to be listening to Eminem. For closing, well -- that's time for the Doors. Something that has a beat to it."
His "Craniotomy 101" tape features tuneage by Bob Marley, Lyle Lovett, and the Neville Brothers, as well as an avant-garde piece by "some guy from the '50s imitating a train. The great thing about that is people are scrubbed and sterile, and can't turn it off." Sometimes, when they're really jamming in the OR, neighboring surgeons bang on the wall for them to turn it down.
Working with a lot of "hardasses" during his residency brought out Big Al's rockin' side. "There was no talking in the room, no music," he recalls. "We had a lot of yelling and screaming. I just think people perform better if they try to relax in their environment."
His corny jokes help the kids relax, too. Post-surgery, he likes to put his ear against their heads and say, "I keep hearing something in here like tapping. I think I left my wristwatch in there."
Another favorite is, "If you like the look, and you want that haircut again, come back and we'll shave it for you."
He'd like to bring his dog Morty on rounds, but Morty flunked obedience school. "He's a nice guy, but he just gets too excited," he tells a little girl who's curled up in a hospital bed. "I can bring him up to the cafeteria, but I can't bring him up here."
Big Al regrets that he doesn't have more time to perform magic tricks for the kids, something he used to do on rounds. When he was in medical school in New York, he studied magic on the side. His teacher was a "little old Italian guy whose real name was Quentino Marucci, but he changed it to the Great Slidini. You'd go in there, you could hardly understand what he was saying. But then he made these things disappear right in front of your eyes."
Maybe if Elvis had a little "Big Al" therapy, he wouldn't have needed those pesky amphetamines.