“Music a part of pain care, healing” Music-thanatology in the Catholic Sentinel

Music-thanatologists Laura Moya and Andrea Partenheimer were recently featured in the Catholic Sentinel. Music-thanatology has been integrated into care at two Providence hospitals in Portland, Oregon for more than a decade. As Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski, Director of Spiritual Care at Providence Portland Medical Center, puts it, “Music thanatology reminds us that this is as sacred a moment as birthing, despite the sorrow.”

The patient featured in the story, Richard Redmond, was reluctant to allow music-thanatology into his hospital room. A 92-year-old retired Navy officer, he was not a particular fan of soft music. But once he experienced the music vigil, he asked that the music-thanatologist return. His son noted his own experience of relaxation while listening to the music.

It is sometimes challenging to introduce music-thanatology. Where else can we experience music tailored specifically to us, to our breath, to our facial expression and heart rate? How often does a stranger with a harp share intimate moments of saying good-bye to our loved ones? But when the door is opened, even slightly, to music-thanatology, patients and families most often have an experience of beauty, reverence, and calm that transforms their initial skepticism and invites music to continue to accompany them.

“Soothing Music” Music-Thanatology featured in southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune

Music-Thanatologists Elizabeth Markell and James Excell were featured in yesterday’s Mail Tribune.  They work for the palliative care service at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford, Oregon.  The article highlights one of my favorite things about music-thanatology: in spite of music-thanatology’s unusual appearance, it is extremely effective for patient care. 

Reporter Chris Conrad writes, “It might sound like New Age mumbo jumbo, but Sue Kilbourne, RVMC’s clinical manager of medical oncology and palliative care, says music-thanatology can play a significant role in easing patient suffering. ‘We have seen such positive results from music-thanatology,’ Kilbourne says. ‘We now have nurses and even doctors who are recommending the musicians to patients. They believe it really does improve patient outcomes.’ The musicians are required to fill out medical observation charts with each patient. The hospital is collecting the data to share with other organizations looking to expand their palliative care programs.”

The idea of music-thanatology as “new age mumbo jumbo” is not surprising. I heard many variations of this idea when I interviewed medical professionals for Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage. Many noted that they had to experience firsthand the effect the music had on their patients before they understood the efficacy of music-thanatology. But once they did, they became extremely interested in offering the modality to more and more of their patients. 

It is difficult to imagine the sounds and feeling of a music-thanatology vigil without this firsthand experience.  But it is possible to get a small taste of it.  If you are curious about the sounds of the harp, I’d recommend listening to a few samples from my extremely talented colleagues in Everett, Washington, Jeri Howe and Dia Walker.  Their CD, Beauty Awaits, is a gorgeous and meditative collection. Take a few minutes and be transported. 


The Music Instinct: Science and Song (PBS)

If you did not see this documentary on public television when it aired a few months ago, you can view it online now.  The Music Instinct: Science and Song is fascinating.  I stumbled upon it accidentally while flipping channels and sat riveted for the entire hour.  There is a particularly amazing interview with Dr. Oliver Sacks talking about the impact of music on patients with Parkinson’s Disease.  Check it out!