Music For The Dying

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Health care providers are thinking a lot more about the end of life and trying to emphasize the quality of that life. Lahey Hospital outside of Boston is taking a musical approach to make their patients a little more comfortable. Paige Pfleger reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Right now you're hearing two things. The first is the sound of a harp. It's being played by Jennifer Hollis. The second is the sound of an oxygen tank humming in the corner. Susan Steinbauer is laying in her hospital bed with her eyes closed, her hands folded over a blue crocheted blanket. She's 64 and has terminal cancer. When the music stops, Steinbauer opens her eyes.

SUSAN STEINBAUER: It actually brought me back to a certain place in my childhood that, you know, when you're little, you weren't so free. And that's what it was. It was like the freedom feeling.

PFLEGER: Jennifer Hollis is more than just a harpist. She's what's called a music thanatologist. She plays the harp and sings for dying patients. So if life was a movie, Hollis plays the music during the closing credits. Her profession is really rare. There are fewer than 100 music thanatologists worldwide. The defining characteristic of music thanatology is what Hollis calls the prescriptive process. She uses the raw elements of music, like melody, harmony, rhythm, tonality, to respond to each individual patient.

JENNIFER HOLLIS: So if a patient has restlessness, agitation, I would start thinking prescriptively about what are the qualities of music that might be able to address that in some way.

PFLEGER: For the last 10 years, Hollis has been going to Lahey Hospital to play for dying patients. Sometimes the patient response is physical. They might breathe more deeply or their facial expression might relax. Other times, she'll play a room full of people straight to sleep, but she's not insulted by that.

HOLLIS: It's such a compliment 'cause it means that people are - they're relaxed, that they feel safe, and they feel comfortable.

PFLEGER: The response to the music can also be really emotional and not just for the patient. Hollis says that families might use the time that she's in the room to tell stories about their loved one, to pray or to say goodbye.

HOLLIS: The interesting thing about music thanatology, I think, is that in some ways it's medicine that you can give both to the patient and to their family.

PFLEGER: There's not a whole lot of research backing up the benefits of music thanatology. Beth Collins is the medical director of Lahey Hospital's palliative care program. At first, she was worried that her unit would be seen as soft or touchy-feely by other doctors. But once she saw Hollis with patients, she didn't really care about the science.

BETH COLLINS: I don't think things have to be proven. I think they just have to work. And to me, this is a heck of a lot better than giving somebody some medication that's going to change things going on in their body.

PFLEGER: Collins says that there's only been one complaint about Hollis' service.

COLLINS: Sometimes some patients' families have said, oh, my God, no, if my father ever opened his eyes and saw somebody with a harp near his bed, he would think he had already died.

PFLEGER: But the harp reminding people of those pearly gates isn't always a bad thing, Hollis says.

HOLLIS: They love the idea that their loved one, especially if they're not conscious and speaking anymore, might hear the music and feel like they were in heaven.

PFLEGER: If not a bridge to the afterlife, Hollis' harp can at least provide an escape from the hum of a hospital room. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger.

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