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.
This a story that I’ve told many times before:
Recently at the hospital where I work I had the pleasure of spending some time with a gentleman and his family in the oncology unit over the course of a few days. He is in his late 70s with various medical issues and was, at the time, declining fairly fast. He had recently become non-responsive and was put on “comfort care”; the goal now of simply keeping him comfortable at this point. The first day I visited and was asked to help he appeared a bit agitated and perhaps in some pain. I provided music for him and a few family members to help with relaxation and comfort.
The next day I was asked to return as his daughter was visiting and had heard that the music was helpful. She greeted me warmly and thanked me for coming as it was just decided that he was soon being discharged to “home-hospice”. When I saw him now he appeared to be more stable, although still unresponsive, eyes closed and with some labored breathing. As his daughter sat next to the bed she told me that he loved classic country and folk music. I started lightly playing some chords on the guitar to set the tone and then merged into a down-tempo version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. As I started to sing the first line - she burst into tears. As I continued, she was holding his hand and stroking his arm. And there was a lot of emotion. When I finished, I sat in silence to give her a moment as, obviously, this song was bringing up something for her. After a pause she said, “We used to sing that song together when I was a little girl. I remember sitting on his lap and that is the first song I remember singing with him. Wow…I was going to ask you to play that but wasn’t sure if I could handle it.” She then told me that she was having trouble dealing with his rapid decline, especially since her mother passed away less than a year ago. This was all happening so fast. After a few more songs, she paused and asked if I could play 'Can’t Help Falling in Love’. She said that it was her favorite song and she learned it because her father used to sing it all the time; it was even her wedding song. I started the song and there were a few more tears. Then, about halfway through, he opened his eyes and appeared to smile. (I don’t know if he was actually smiling or if he was aware of the music at this point, but for her, in this moment…he was smiling.) She looked at me and said, “Oh my God…he’s smiling! I’ve not seen that in quite some time.” She was now also smiling through her tears (as was I). It was a very touching moment. When I finished she said, “Thank you for the music, it was great to hear those old songs again. And thank you for taking me down memory lane with him one more time.”
Why did I choose 'Ring of Fire’ to start? Was it by chance? Why, in other cases, do I seem to choose the song that was played at their wedding, a funeral, the prom, the song when they met? Is it by chance?
I also recently visited with a lovely older woman in her 80s, and her son who was visiting. She was in the hospital for some breathing issues, but also had some confusion as a result of dementia. Her affect was flat and she was looking off when I sat down and took out my guitar, but when I started playing and singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ she held eye contact with me, slightly smiled and finally started lightly singing along. As the song progressed, I noticed her son leave the room. After we finished she said, “Do you know, that was my husband’s favorite song and it was sung at his funeral? He passed away last month." She then proceeded to tell me a little story about him, when they met and how he would fix up their apartment…and sing that song.
Music equals connection. When music is presented and shared, especially during times of such high emotion, there is an immediate connection that happens - between patient, caregiver, daughter, son, friend…me. Always. Music brings us together on another level like nothing else. And music gave a daughter and her father, and a son and his mother, a very meaningful moment during a time when life (and death) makes one question what really is meaningful. Music creates meaning. Music creates connection. And most importantly…music heals.
The healing power of music…
(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)