Music to say “Hello” again…and music to say “Goodbye”

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

One of the interesting aspects of working as a music therapist in a medical setting is not knowing who I am going to see, or what I may face on any given day.  What I do know is that music can be very powerful to experience in the hospital. Music reduces stress and anxiety, music can be a voice for emotional expression, music can empower, music can create a soundscape of comfort at the end of life and music can even help celebrate the small steps towards healing.  On a recent morning I saw two patients that covered the ends of the spectrum as to how music can “help”…

The first patient I saw on that particular day was a woman in her early 60s who was in the ICU recovering from a recent cardiac arrest.  I had seen her the a few days prior, providing music for stress reduction and relaxation, as she was recovering.  But now she was sitting up in a chair and smiled warmly when I peeked in to say “hello” and check in on her.  When I asked her how she was doing she said, “Much better!  I’m getting stronger and I’m ready to move on!”  She was smiling and happy and we used music to celebrate and empower.  She would soon be going home and just days before her expected outcome was not so promising.  We jubilantly sang, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and “I Can See Clearly Now”, among a few others and she was smiling, singing and her face showed relief and exhilaration.  Oh how great it is to celebrate “feeling better” with someone in the hospital!  This story had a happy ending.

After after seeing her I was asked to visit with a woman and her husband in the oncology unit; a very sad case with a very different feel.  She was in her late 40s, had battled ovarian cancer several years ago and until recently had appeared to be well.  However, she suddenly had a rapid recurrence, seemingly out of the blue, as she started to feel very ill.  When she got to the hospital earlier in the week she was told that cancer was now spreading rapidly all over her body.  She was declining very fast.  This all happened within a few days.  She and her husband have 2 children.  The children had no idea of her past diagnosis as they never told them; her prognosis was good then so they felt it was not necessary.  But when she came to the hospital now, she was told that she is very far along.  There was nothing to be done.  This week changed their life in a way like no other and part of the week was telling their children of the dire situation.  She would not live much longer.  The plan now was for her to leave the hospital for “home hospice” and they now have to prepare for the inevitable.  She was very afraid of dying and worried about her children.  And her husband was not knowing how to handle this; it all happened so fast and his face showed how blindsided he has been.  I was asked to visit with her and husband while they were waiting to take her home.  She was declining rapidly and when I sat on one side of the bed, with her husband on the other side, holding her hand, he just started weeping when the music started.  It was a bit of a surreal moment really, the 3 of us there.  There was nothing to say so, I just played, softly on the guitar, playing what I thought they may be feeling inside.  The improvised music was “holding” them, supporting them and giving them a space to just be and let out emotion.  After several minutes, she looked directly into my eyes (for the first time) and as I held her gaze, without even thinking I just started humming along with the guitar playing, trying to sooth and comfort, similar to what you may do with a scared child.  For a few moments, the dark room was so quiet except for the soundscape of my light guitar playing and soft humming.  For a few moments it felt oddly peaceful.  When I finished I stood to leave and nodded “goodbye” to her husband.  He walked right over and embraced me and whispered “thank you so much” into my ear.  I felt both empty and also satisfied that I was able to help in a small way.  I was honored to have spent some time with them.

In just a few hours, music helped to celebrate life and music prepared for dying.  As the day went on, many other situations arose and it just goes to show - music can be many things to many people.  And that is why it works so well in the hospital. 

The healing power of music… 

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)