Music is Good Medicine!

Sharing the healing power of music is a privilege open to all of us. If you haven't explored the opportunities for sharing in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and other similar venues, I encourage you to do so. It will be a gift that you give yourself.

Linda Sack and I have had the joy of playing weekly for the cardiac patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center since 1995. When one of our heart transplant patients recently found out that he was getting a new heart, we were invited to come and be part of the celebration....a part of the family. What a gift that was to us!

Being able to visit with these patients years after they receive their transplants is another gift!! The gentleman in the far right in the picture below is now a Transplant Olympian, winning in shotput and distance running!!! He received his new heart four and one-half years ago.

Following is the text of an article which I wrote for the November, 1997-January,1998 issue of Dulcimer Players News, a special issue on music and the spirit.

The first time I saw him, he was strapped upright into a chair, eyes closed, unresponsive. "Play for him," I was told. "He came off the ventilator today, and we're not sure how much he hears. He hasn't responded to anything since he's been in the hospital." I spoke gently to him and told him who I was and that I'd like to share my dulcimer music with him. Soon after I started playing "Rosin the Bow," his right hand began moving rhythmically with the music. The second time I saw him, one week later, he was sitting in a chair and beginning to relate to his surroundings. As I began playing this time, he joined me in singing "Amazing Grace." It was difficult for him to keep the melody and rhythm constant, so I began matching my pace to his and strumming only the chords. I used some seventh and minor chords and could sense his frustration. Finally he stopped singing, put his hands on his hips, and said, "Does this mean anything to you?!" while holding up one, then four, then five fingers. "Yes, sir," I replied, and we finished the song together - this time with only the D, G, and A chords that he wanted. I did not see him again, but one of the nurses told me several months later that he had come back to the hospital for a visit and that he had recovered fully from his stroke. He had two memories from the time when he was most ill. One was of a curly-haired nurse, and one was of my dulcimer.

Since September of 1995 I have been playing my dulcimer as a volunteer at Vanderbilt Hospital. Each Tuesday, Linda Sack and I (we call ourselves Tuesday Lunch!!) meet during the lunch hour to share our music with the cardiac patients. I met Linda at a Bluegrass festival that September, and we quickly discovered a mutual desire to take this music to the hospital patients. Linda works in cancer development at Vanderbilt and has long been an active hospital volunteer. This was a natural next step for both of us. At that time there was no organized music program for patients, so we worked with the volunteer coordinator and the director of the Cultural Enrichment program to develop specific guidelines for music enrichment in the hospital. We visit with patients and their families individually in their rooms. I am fortunate to have Linda as a playing partner. I am enriched by her friendship and musicianship. Last December we recorded 8 of our songs on a cassette we titled "Heart Strings," and with the hospital's support, we share it with patients.

The music is sometimes a comforter, sometimes an energizer, sometimes an escape. This past Tuesday I arrived in a room just as a patient was to undergo a painful chemotherapy injection. "Come play something upbeat!" she said. I did, and she was able to focus on the music and its lively rhythm. When I left her room, I knew I had made a difference. One reluctant patient first declined my offer to play and then challenged me to "cheer him up" when his longsuffering son urged him to let me in. I said, "OK, I can do that," and when I left 10 minutes later, he was sitting up in bed, laughing and eating potato chips. The special thank you I got that day was from the family!

A very special part of our visit is the time we spend with patients who are waiting for heart transplants. These patients remain in the hospital until they receive their transplants, and many of them are there for several months. In addition to the medical problems facing them, they face the tedium of confinement. For five months, Linda and I played for 3 gentlemen who were waiting for hearts. On many Tuesdays we were able to gather in one room and share a wonderful time together laughing, singing, and chatting. Two of them received hearts after 5 months, and the third had his transplant 2 months later. Sharing this stressful yet miraculous time with them was a time of personal growth for us all. The nurses and staff have been wonderful to us. I arrived at the transplant unit on one particularly difficult day. The nurses asked if I would sit for a while at the nurses' station and play for them. I felt as if I were the calm in the eye of the storm as they rushed around me but, incredibly, took time to say, "Thank you; this helps." I can't speak to the technical aspects of why music heals. I have attended some seminars and training sessions which have taught me that the body responds physically and emotionally to particular rhythms and pitches. I know that familiar melodies will trigger responses in people with autism and Alzheimer's. I can only speak to the healing which I have seen. It works. My time at Vanderbilt each Tuesday is a gift I give myself. I have never left the hospital wondering whether or not it was good for me to have been there.


Linda and I have now been playing in the hospital weekly for more than 5 years. We are both working in different jobs, but the Tuesday Lunch remains the same! The friends we have made have brought us valuable lessons in courage, tenacity and hope. The rewards are tremendous!

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