Soothing Sounds: Critically Ill Patients Benefit from Music

September 20, 2006
Sept. 20, 2006 -- The sweet notes of a dulcet harp compete with the beeps and buzzes of monitors in the Surgical Trauma Burn Intensive Care Unit at the Medical Center. Nurses and doctors swirl around musician Nadine E. Roddy as she seeks to soothe staff and patients.

Roddy is one of five volunteers at the Medical Center using music to ease patients’ suffering from trauma, cancer and other life threatening conditions.

“This is the most worthwhile work I have ever done,” said Roddy, a research attorney who took up the harp to ease her own migraine headaches.

Musician and teacher Eve Watters has played harp to patients for 10 years. Musician-in-residence at the Medical Center, Watters was certified through the Music for Healing and Transitions Program. She established a local training center and encouraged other musicians.
Five started last year, four as interns for MHTP, which stresses music as part of the therapeutic healing process and which certifies music practitioners. Classes and workshops focus on how music affects patients.

Martha B. Bryant, activities specialist at the Surgical ICU, said nurses have documented how music stabilizes blood pressure and  vital signs in patients. “I enjoy this more than anything
I have done in music,” said Renee “Blue” O’Connell, a 30-year musician recently certified as a music practitioner. Playing with a “severe to profound” hearing loss that gives O’Connell empathy with patients, she can hear the music in her head and she knows “where to go on the
guitar” to get those sounds. “I know what it feels like to suffer, to feel confined and isolated,” she

O’Connell gravitates to the most severely injured, believing they need the most help. It is “a good
thing” when her audience falls asleep, O’Connell said. The musicians play classical and
contemplative music or improvise, avoiding readily recognizable music that may stir painful memories for a patient.

“We don’t play requests, but we play what you need,” said harpist Sandra L. Johnson.

“This is one of the best things we have ever done,” said Elizabeth A. “Liz” Courain, director of volunteer services at the Medical Center. “We have had doctors request that we send a musician to see a patient.”

The music “seems to relieve agitation” in the patients, said Dr. Robert G. Sawyer, associate professor in the department of surgery. “I think it works by relaxing them.”

“I couldn’t believe such a wonderful thing was possible,” said Edward S. Lovern of Lynchburg, hospitalized 19 days in late 2004. Cellist Anna Oppenheimer, a U.Va. student played what Lovern described as “glorious, soothing music.”

Oppenheimer is not part of MHTP; she is a founding member of the student-run “Musicians on Call.”

Patients thrive on personal attention, “especially if someone is playing at the bedside,” Bryant said.

Music is part of “total care” for the patient, said Mary M. Deivert, trauma care coordinator at the ICU, because it is “normal” and brings “the real world back” to the patient, who generally feels isolated in the hospital.

In addition to harps, Roddy and Johnson play Native American flutes, carrying several with them in the hospital. If a patient is depressed, Johnson starts playing in a lower register and slowly works her way up to brighter sounding flutes, lifting the patient’s mood.

MHTP students take their training in a variety of weekend classes, given locally, since 2000, at space provided by Martha Jefferson Hospital.
While based in New York, O’Connell said MHTP teachers come here from around the country.
A student could take a year to complete the program, O’Connell said.

The curriculum includes developing a repertoire of appropriate music, studying music as a language, an examination of how music soothes, and care for the dying.

Different music reflects different illnesses, O’Connell said. Heart attack patients should hear something rhythmically steady, while arrhythmic music should be used for the dying. “It’s music with no steady pulse so we can help them let go,” O’Connell said.

Alzheimer’s patients need more familiar music, which could soothe and comfort them. “Sometimes they sing along,” said Johnson.

Once certified as MHTP music practitioners, musicians may be paid for their services. “U.Va. is one of the few places that has established a small stipend [for a musician-in-residence], and
I am very proud of us for doing that,” said Watters.

While the other musicians said that being paid would be nice, they plan to continue volunteering
because they benefit as much as the patients. Playing music creates balance in Roddy’s life, and Johnson, a medical technologist in the cancer lab, said this gives her an opportunity to bring patients’ spirits up.

“I always leave with a big grin on my face,” she said.

O’Connell’s job as a Web editor at the Weldon Cooper Center does not drain her emotionally nor does it fulfill her spiritual needs.

“When I do this,” O’Connell said of playing for patients. “I never walk away feeling down.”