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Palliative Care, With A Soundtrack

Lauren Silverman

Usually its IV poles being wheeled down hospital hallways. Today, it’s a harp.

In the palliative care program at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, music is used, along with medicine, to help patients manage chronic illness.

Almost every day Mary LeBus brings her harp – whose name is Joey – into patients’ rooms at Baylor in Dallas.

As a certified music practitioner, LeBus is trained to use music to help people relax, and sometimes find energy. If patients aren’t able to talk, she watches their monitors or their breathing for clues as to how they’re feeling.

As LeBus delicately plucks the strings of her harp, Sherry Parks sits with a white blanket over her lap. Parks, who has colon cancer, remembers when LeBus first rolled into her room with the harp in August.

“I thought this is a great thing!” she says. “I think that music, and animal therapy, things like that are some of the most relaxing, invigorating (…) bring you back to life kinds of things you can do.”

Drumming Away The Pain

Judy Ritchie has been playing music to comfort cancer patients for almost a decade.

Sometimes she’ll play for patients who are in and out of the hospital for years – sometimes in their final moments.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
As part of the palliative care program at Baylor, Judy Ritchie (left) plays the tone drum for patient Sabrina Booker-Murray.

“It’s an honor to be present at that sacred time,” Ritchie says. “The person who is trying to die is trying to let go, and so if we do something arrhythmic with long pauses that helps them have a peacefulness and a reassurance that they can go and that it’s going to be okay.”

Ritchie, who is on staff at Baylor, plays the flute, lap harp and drums. For patient Sabrina Booker-Murray, Ritchie brings out a tone drum.

“I have been on the phone telling everyone about this music and this hospital,” Booker-Murray says. Booker-Murray, who has breast cancer that’s spread to other parts of her body, says she’s never been in a hospital where music is a part of the healing and coping process.

“But I thank god he’s bringing me through and I thank these ladies because they’re very helpful,” she says. “They have really helped me to relax and forget my problems.”

Making Alternative Health Care Part Of Traditional Treatment 

Several studies show that palliative care — interdisciplinary treatment for patients with long-term health challenges — can decrease hospitalizations and increase patient satisfaction.

“A lot of times we think that patients need to have their symptoms managed with medications,” says Marlene McHugh. “But for many patients symptoms can be managed with touch, with music.”

McHugh is an assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University Medical Center and Associate Director of Palliative Care at Montefiore Medical Center. She co-authored a 2013 study on acute palliative care.

As a traditional health care provider, McHugh is excited by the idea of a more holistic approach to coping with chronic illness. The greatest challenge, she says, is tight budgets at hospitals.

“We don’t have the ability to hire as many people as we did in the past,” McHugh says. “So I think until we get private funding or people privately pay, [alternative health care in palliative care] will be limited. Especially in areas where they don’t have extra resources.”

Hospitals are choosing to finance palliative care programs – there are now more nearly 1,500 in the U.S. And even with limited resources, and limited research on music therapy, some are betting on song.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.