Dr. Linda Fisher pulls up a small stool next to the hospital bed of a late-stage cancer patient. The woman groans and closes her glassy eyes as Dr. Fisher begins to pluck at the instrument she hopes will help ease the pain: a harp.
Fisher begins with a lullaby and, taking note of the patient’s labored breathing, switches to a soothing but arrhythmic arrangement of broken chords. She pauses in time with the woman’s heavy breaths. “I’m not going in there to provide entertainment,” Fisher explains later. “I’m going in there to promote a healing atmosphere.”
Dr. Fisher is a retired primary care physician and has performed for hundreds of infants, adolescents and adults suffering from illnesses from cancer to stroke to trauma and cardiovascular problems. She plays a portable Dusty Strings harp made from African bubinga wood, which stands about 3 feet tall and has 26 strings. She is trying to ease anxiety and promote relaxation to promote healing. She tailors her music to the patient and plays 20-30 minutes. The music is generally not popular or familiar tunes, although children and adults with dementia seem to respond to well- known tunes like “Brahms Lullaby” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” “Generally, most people tend to close their eyes. Some people drift off to sleep. Often hospital staff assume men don’t like music but music is so universal that most people have a response. I have seen very agitated patients become calm with heart rate and breathing becoming stable“ to quote Dr. Fisher.
Dr. Fisher, an internist and pediatrician grew up playing piano. She was inspired to learn to play harp after hearing harpists at her daughter’s music camp. To quote Dr. Fisher “I just fell in love with the harp. I thought, ‘All I do is work and exercise. I need another outlet.’ “She decided to incorporate her new hobby as part of her medical mission after attending a therapeutic harp conference in Salt Lake City. She later took courses to become certified as a Music Practitioner through a program titled Music for Healing and Transition (MHTP). As a physician, Dr. Fisher is distinguished from a music therapist who pursues a college program in the discipline. Music therapy is now very accepted in hospitals as a complimentary medicine and as part of rehabilitative medicine. The theory is that live music—which is essentially sound vibrations—does not just help patients relax but promotes healing by stimulating vibrations already coursing constantly through the body from the nervous systems, the cardiac cycle and to the tiniest atoms.
Fisher said, “Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a patient is responding if they are critically ill and sedated.” But she notes that for dying and critically ill patients hearing is always present. The eardrum continues to vibrate and send signals to the brain. Other times, the reaction is crystal clear—like the 24-year-old leukemia patient for whom she played Celtic music. Fisher states, “She smiled the whole time. It was pure joy.” Putting people in a better spirit is an important part of healing.
(This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune Feb. 11, 2009. It has been updated and edited)
Note from Dr. Fisher: Since this article was written I have retired as a full-time physician but I have continued to play as a Certified Music Practitioner at Loyola Hospital in Maywood, Il. I play for all types of patients- ICU, Pediatrics, NICU, transplant unit, and medical units. Trying to meet a patient where they are and bring them to a place of healing is challenging but very rewarding. I use my small harp but within MHTP we have vocalists, flutists, guitarists, cellists and other instruments.
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