Music in Healthcare: A Profound Experience
In September of this year, I had the honor and privilege of playing for a decorated U.S. government official, policy thought leader, acclaimed author, playwright, professor, and speaker. As a celebrated public figure, his résumé is an impressive collection of accolades, from Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to around the globe. Today, this distinguished gentleman leads a very different life: he has advanced ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His ALS is severe. He has been immobile for over three years. He cannot speak; he communicates solely through eye movements and a special pad that he can write on with the help of his wife. A team of caregivers surrounds him 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. Having recently been sent home from Hospice, the caretakers’ goals are to make him as comfortable as possible.
When his wife kindly invited me to visit their home, I was honored yet not sure what to expect. This was a very different experience for me as house calls are not usually a part of what I do. As a harpist and ArtistYear Fellow in the Philadelphia community, my role as a citizen artist during my service year is to bring music to the patients and caregivers at Jefferson Hospital. I knew immediately upon stepping into their home that this experience was going to be more difficult and more deeply moving than I had anticipated. Because I play in the oncology wing at Jefferson on a regular basis, I had assumed that I would be adequately prepared for a house call to a hospice patient. After all, my ArtistYear is all about performing music for the sick, and I was well aware that I would experience emotionally intense and personal situations.
But this was different. Perhaps it was being in the patient’s own home, as opposed to a sterile and impersonal hospital room. Perhaps it was seeing the pictures of his children and grandchildren on the mantel. Perhaps it was talking to his beautiful wife for almost an hour and hearing about the colorful and vibrant life they led before he got sick. I don’t wish to reach for melodrama, but my encounter with him required me to confront my own mortality and that of my family members and loved ones.
When I began playing the harp for him, his eyes welled up with tears. He wrote “thank you so much” on his special notepad with the help of his wife. It was deeply meaningful for me to be able to share an intimate musical experience with this man and his wife. I was humbly reminded of the incredible power and depth of music, of my own love for music, and its ability to transcend formal communication.
In the weeks following, a fierce internal struggle ensued. On the one hand, I had felt a wonderful, satisfying feeling of warmth, of contributing, and of achievement. I had provided a meaningful musical experience for someone chronically ill, which I believed was the whole goal of my ArtistYear focus. And yet despite this “success”, I was consumed by misgivings and uncertainty. I questioned my own strength. I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to continue my work in healthcare. Would being around the sick day in, day out make me too depressed or negative? What if I couldn’t shake this feeling of my own mortality knocking on the door at any moment? Death is, in fact, the only given in this world. Yet, I realized I have a responsibility on behalf of those unable to live to the fullest, to live all the more fully with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever.
The path forward was clear – continue my work in healthcare more passionately and more vigorously than ever before. I wanted to touch as many lives as possible. I was so honored to bring music to the gentleman’s bedside, and I wanted to share more beautiful experiences with others. Playing for him was a transformative experience for me; I am without a doubt thankful for it. It allowed me to find a deeper level of meaning in my own work, and it fueled my passion for why I do what I do. Although I cannot singlehandedly cure all the chronically ill patients in Jefferson Hospital, the experience taught me that I can indeed make a difference one person at a time by bringing music and offering comfort in their lives. One changes the world person by person, after all. The role of music in healthcare is bright and I am thrilled to be a part of it.