We’ve all experienced the feeling of listening to an old favorite song and being transported back to happy memories from our childhoods or high school.
Music can tap into these long forgotten recollections, capturing our attention and bringing to mind some of our happiest moments. It can also be healing, something which many of our area hospitals have been able to use as a tool to promote wellness and health through community workshops and events.
One such program is found in the Art & Spirituality Center at Mercy Hospital Downtown. Founded in 2010, the center utilizes the arts for the benefit of patients. One part of this is Art for Healing, which incorporates many different elements to help not only their patients, but anyone who thinks they could benefit. “Art for Healing is programs that might be dealing with writing, music, movement, painting, drawing, anything in the arts that people in the community who are over 18 years of age or older can come in and participate free of charge to help alleviate or help with healing,” Donna Tirp, manager of the center and the community wellness program revealed. It really gives people the opportunity to take the focus off whatever they may be dealing with and redirect that into something artistic. “People might be coming here because they’re an adult provider for a parent, they might be dealing with anxiety or stress, they may have just finished their last chemotherapy treatment and they are coming down here to participate, [or] we might have someone dealing with addiction issues,” she stated.
“These programs are really designed to get everyone to open up the right side of their brain, the creative side, so we’ve had programs here at the center with our monthly drum circle, we have our ukulele series called Uke On!, which is for beginners to learn how to hold a ukulele, how to strum and learn the chords, the basics of ukulele. We’ve had a series [called] Make A Drum, Play A Drum, where individuals come in and they create their own drum and we have the materials for that and they design the drums, and then at the last session there’s an actual drum circle where everyone can get involved and participate,” Tirp advised.
Everyone is welcome to participate in the activities at the Art & Spirituality Center, whatever their level of skill may be. According to Tirp “no one needs to be musically talented to participate in any of our programs or have an artistic background to participate in things at the Arts & Spirituality program.”
The response they’ve received from these groups has been both phenomenal and touching. Emily Hernandez, coordinator for the center, disclosed a recent conversation with an attendee of their Uke On! series who was suffering from pain and limited mobility, “she shared with me that from the moment she walked into the center and was participating in these workshops, the pain went away.” Hernandez told how the participant exclaimed, “I just look forward to these workshops, because I know that for that time that I’m there I’m not going to feel the pain, and that in addition to learning how to play the ukulele, [it] is worth so much. ”
Outside of Art for Healing, they also sponsor the Threshold Choir, which Tirp described as being “a group of women whose mission is to go sing at the bedside of an individual, whether that be in a hospital, in a hospice setting, in an individual’s home, and to sing to those who may be transitioning at the threshold of life.”
The Threshold Choir makes regular rounds at the three sister hospitals under the Dignity Health umbrella (Memorial, Mercy Southwest, and Mercy Downtown), but they also have a dedicated phone line at Mercy Downtown and are available for “a sing” when requested. “They have gone to individuals bedsides at the Heart Hospital, at HealthSouth Rehabilitation, [and] Kern Medical,” Tirp described. They also make visits to local retirement homes. At one such visit volunteer Barbara Mattick experienced first hand the healing power of music. Mattick recalled, “When I went with a small group of singers from Threshold Choir to sing for Emma*, I was stunned by how far away her memories had slipped. It had been a couple of months since I had been able to join the group who sing monthly for residents at the Memory Care Unit at Brookdale Riverwalk. Although it was evident that Emma’s ability to remember things was on a steep decline, her kind heart, welcoming smile, and love of everyone around her were as strong as ever.
“Emma asked us if she knew us and we assured her we did. We sang a few soothing songs, and then a magical thing happened. We told Emma that one of her favorite songs was, How Great Thou Art. Like a trusting child, she asked, ‘It is?’ Then, as we began to sing it for her, her face bloomed into the most radiant smile as she exclaimed, ‘I remember!’ and she began to sing with us, eyes filled with tears. The music tapped into memories lost forever.”
Hernandez went on to say, “Songs and music can really tap into that memory and can at least for a moment take us back to a certain time or a certain place that can really be instrumental for our feelings and our wellness.”
On the first and third Friday of the month the choir practices at their home hospital and invites anyone needing it to come and sit in what they call the “song bask” chair for a moment to soak in the beautiful sound of their harmonious voices. “That can oftentimes be very therapeutic for participants…and sometimes they invite other volunteers and staff and just anybody that’s in need for that kind of healing through music,” Hernandez remarked.
What really helped the music facet of the Art & Spirituality Center take off was the grand piano in Mercy Downtown’s lobby. Tirp elaborated, “our lobby has become a gathering point when the piano is playing, not only for the employees, but also for the people that might be visiting the hospital.” Seeing this really emphasized how much of an opportunity there is for healing through music and pushed them to seeing what more they could offer. It continues to overflow into the rest of the hospital. “It really trickles into the family of the patients and also the staff here so everyone benefits from that,” Tirp added.
She reiterated that there are so many people that could benefit from programs like this. “There’s really not one ideal situation where it works for just one type of a patient or one kind of person…it really can help open up patients or families to healing,” Tirp summated. With this knowledge, she explained, “It’s really exciting, it’s something that we are looking at doing more with because there’s always room for more.” She continued, “there’s lots of opportunities to promote wellness and have patients able to express their feelings. And communication is so important for everybody, whether it’s the patients, nursing staff, or physicians, but music really enhances clear communication. It’s really something that everyone can benefit from.”
It’s clear that music can unlock untapped potential for healing in patients who are having memory issues or experiencing pain or the anxieties and stresses of life. Many find comfort in listening to the calming voices of talented singers and musicians or through community workshops. Programs like these show that healing is so much more than just a place or a treatment option, it’s about receiving the total care that you need, mind, body, and soul.
Photos courtesy of Donna Tirp
* Name changed to protect privacy of the patient.