Small Miracles

I am so grateful I get to witness miracles on a daily basis. And they usually happen when I have no expectations.  Last night as I was leaving a facility, the Hospice RN asked if I had played for a patient of ours who was transitioning.  I replied I had not and then explained, I no longer played for him since he had moved into a 3 patient room with a roommate who was so unpleasant whenever I came into the room it made it impossible to play harp and promote relaxation and peace.  Typically, what would happen would be that I would knock and enter the room with my harp.  The unpleasant roommate (let’s call him UR) would snarl, “I don’t want what you’re selling!” I would smile and say, “I’m not selling anything and I’m here to play for your friend over there and you’re welcome to listen.”

He would shout, “I don’t want to listen, I’m sick of all you people.” And would turn on or turn up his TV to an ear-splitting level. No amount of persuasion or negotiating could get him to turn his TV down or off. It was impossible to play over the noise so I finally just gave up and avoided that room altogether.  UR never left the room for meals either so he couldn’t be worked around. It was unfortunate because, before our patient had been moved into that toxic environment, I had played for him successfully for months.

Back to the present.  The RN reminded me, “You know, our patient (OP) is transitioning”.  I sighed and told her I did know that and I would go in there and see what I could do but I wasn’t hopeful because of the unpleasant roommate situation. She did understand my dilemma.

I knocked on the patient’s door and was welcomed with “Come in!”  I opened the door and was surprised the TV was not on and UR was sitting up in this recliner and dressed.  I greeted him and asked if he had eaten dinner yet, as it was 5:30.   He said he had eaten something although it wasn’t very good. There wasn’t a trace of hostility in his voice and he was actually responding almost pleasantly to my conversation.  Unbelievable. I had the harp with me and he may have remembered me from our past encounters.  I told him, “I’m going to sit with OP and play quietly by his bedside. I will try and not disturb you”.  He nodded.  I waited for the TV to be turned on as was typical, but it didn’t happen.  I was allowed to play quietly by OP’s bedside while he slept and the room remained silent except for the harp and the soft white noise of the oxygen equipment.  After awhile, some visitors came in to visit with UR and I heard him tell them that his roommate was dying and to “Keep it down”.  They encouraged him to come with them to an activity in the patient lounge area and he agreed.  I had never known UR to leave that room in the past, for any reason.

I played all of OP’s favorite hymns and the song his wife had asked me to play for him before she died earlier that year which was their favorite: Clare De Lune.  I told OP, “Your wife is waiting for you. You can go with her whenever you are ready.” I’m confident OP’s wife was with us at that moment patiently waiting for him to take her hand and cross over to be with her. OP passed the next morning, peacefully.

When I shared this story with my supervisor the next morning after hearing OP had died she sent me this note:

“Thank-you for the intuitive sense that you needed to play the harp for him.  I’m sure that it meant a lot to him especially if you played “Stairway to Heaven”.  You are phenomenal and I’m so glad that you were there yesterday.  In hospice, there are no coincidences but rather small miracles and whisperings from Heavenly Father.  Heidi, there is a reason that you are with our hospice because you are a gift sent to us!! So thank-you again for the amazing talent that you provide for the patients!”

For all the employee reviews I have ever received (both the glowing and the not so good ones) over a 30+ year career, this is one I will always cherish for making me feel truly valued.  Bless you, D!

Duets

As a Therapeutic Musician, usually I play for patients while they passively listen to the music and relax to the gentle sounds. However, on rare occasions I get to make music with my patients, which takes the experience to a much higher vibrational level of healing.  Sometimes we sing together but in the following case, my patient was a harmonica player, not a singer.

Kevin* was referred to me by our hospice team for Therapeutic Harp sessions to help with his anxiety associated with dementia. I was told at that time that Kevin was a musician. Bristol Hospice recognizes the benefits of live, bedside harp music to calm patients and family members in our music program.  In my experience, people with musical talent are especially receptive.   

Kevin lived in an assisted care facility. The first time we met, I found him sitting in his private room watching tv. Well, the tv was on; whether he was watching it or not was debatable.   On the table next to his bed was a large harmonica.  I didn’t know much about harmonicas at that time but when I asked Kevin about it, his face immediately lit up with a big smile. He said he had been playing harmonica since he was 3 years old.  His older brother had one and when his sibling left for school, Kevin “stole” the harmonica and has been playing one ever since. He was proud to relate he is self- taught and plays by ear. 

I started to play an unfamiliar Celtic tune on the harp for him to initiate the musical relaxation session. But Kevin  did not want to relax to my music, he wanted to play music with me. I had never had this experience before so I stopped and asked him what song he would like to play and he said, “Anything in the key of C because that is all this mouth organ can do.”  He said he couldn’t remember any songs by name but if I would start playing something popular, maybe he would remember.  I began with “Amazing Grace”.  He cocked his head and listened briefly and then informed me he recognized the tune although couldn’t remember the title and I was playing it in the wrong key.  It took some trial and error but I was able to transpose the piece into the “right” key and we were able to play our first harp and harmonica duet: Amazing Grace, key of C major.

The next time I came to play for Kevin, he was sitting in the lobby of the facility with the other residents waiting for dinner.  I had planned to go to his room as we had done previously but several of the other residents asked us to stay in the lobby and play when they saw my harp.  Kevin agreed to play with me in the lobby so we began the first of our pre-dinner performances for the residents.  The fact that we didn’t always play the “right” notes or finish at the same time didn’t bother anyone.  The happy sound of Kevin’s harmonica and the beautiful tone of the harp brought joy to everyone in the lobby, especially Kevin. 

As soon as someone recognized a tune we were playing they would call it out, which began a game of “Guess That Tune” for the residents. Occasionally, someone would join us by singing along, which added to the fun.  At the end of each session, Kevin would whisper to me, “Not bad for an unrehearsed first time effort. Maybe we should practice a bit next time.” 

Kevin’s hospice nurse was in the audience one afternoon and told me after our performance that he was profoundly moved by the transformation Kevin went through simply by bringing a harmonica to his lips and making music. “It was like Kevin came to life!” the nurse said.  “I can’t believe the change in him just by performing music.”

Kevin and I routinely performed at the facility every other week, same time, same day, before dinner and entertained the residents with our music.  Kevin’s family was visiting him at one of our sessions and they were amazed at Kevin’s musical talent as well as the change in his demeanor when he began to play. “It’s like he got younger in front of our eyes!” his relative exclaimed.  “I didn’t even know he played the harmonica,” she added.  “I’m going to try and organize a family jam session with him,” she promised.

In order to understand Kevin’s musical transformation, I should describe his before and after effect. Upon arrival at the facility, I would see Kevin sitting in his wheelchair across the lobby, withdrawn and isolated.  He had slight hearing loss, poor eyesight and memory loss which made participation in the group verbal activities and games the facility organized difficult for him.  His face would be blank with a flat affect.  I would greet him and ask him if he would like to play harmonica with me, and he would smile and begin searching for his harmonica.  It usually was in his room on his table, not in his pocket.  After retrieving it I would  ask him what he wanted to play. He would respond, ”I can’t remember any music except the Yale Fight song and a good old Baptist hymn, Love Lifted Me”.  I would encourage him to play his songs for us and then we would all clap, which tickled him. After his solos, he would turn to me and say, “I can’t think of any other songs. You play something. I’ll join you if I can remember it.”  I knew the songs he would remember and could play on his harmonica so I would begin on my list.  Within 4 notes, he could usually join in and we would play together.  Often, Kevin added interesting harmonies and counterpoint to the melody.  When we finished and everyone applauded, he would whisper to me, “Not bad for a first time effort”.  At the end of our session when the residents begin wandering into the dining room for dinner, Kevin would look at me and say, “Maybe next time we should practice before we perform,“  and then he would ask “Who are you, dear?  And I would always say, “ What a great idea. My name is Heidi and I work for Bristol Hospice and I’m here just to play with you.”

“Oh, how nice!” he would respond and then I would wheel him into dinner and depart.

Kevin and I played together every other week for almost a year before he passed away, rather suddenly, as I know he would have wanted it. While his family sat at his bedside during his transition, I stayed outside his door and played all of our favorite songs to help him on his journey.

 

*Kevin is not the patient’s real name, which is changed to protect his privacy.