Amid ICU’s sickness, a harp offers a healing sound

SHARE Amid ICU’s sickness, a harp offers a healing sound

Every sound here shouts: hospital.

The beeps of the heart-rate monitors. The tones of a ventilator as it helps a patient breathe. Hushed conversations about care. The calls over the public address system.

In the intensive-care unit, it’s all a constant reminder those in here are the sickest of the sick.

But in the ICU at Loyola University Medical Center, there’s also another sound. It’s the sweet voice of the 26-string harp.

Every Thursday, Sue Wohld loads her harp in a grocery cart and silently wheels it around the ICU at the teaching hospital in Maywood. She checks in with the nurses and chaplains, asking which patients might benefit from the soothing music she plays. She asks the patients if it would be OK, then sits down and plays them a few songs.

She plays from memory, matching her tempo to each patient’s heart rate and breathing. The sicker the patient, the fewer notes she plays.

It isn’t Mozart or Beethoven. The songs, chosen from a few relatively unknown composers, are meant to be unfamiliar. A song that might evoke a memory of life outside the hospital can be upsetting, says Wohld, a certified music practitioner in the hospital’s pastoral care department.

As she plucks the strings, she glances at the monitors to check the patient’s heart rate and respiration to see the response to the music the patients are often too sick to voice.

“I’m open, I’m a presence,” Wohld says. “I’m there just for them.”

She doesn’t expect her audience to clap, or say thanks or even face her. Her aim isn’t to entertain. It’s to promote “a healing environment” and perhaps brighten a terribly sick patient’s day.

Sometimes, it does more.

“They can have a horrible day, and then a 10-minute visit with the music can really change things for people,” says Wohld. “Many patients have told me they envision the mountains or walking in the woods or traveling to a different country.It seems to allow some people to let go and explore.”

She trained with the Music for Healing and Transition Program, a not-for-profit organization that teaches musicians to play therapeutic music at a sick person’s bedside.

Loyola hosts its classes. Students must complete a practicum in the ICU before receiving their degree. There are three students and two certified music practitioners now at Loyola, including Wohld.

The instruments that are used are chosen for their mellow sound. The group includes a cellist and an alto flute player. A traditional flute’s high notes would be too shrill in the hospital, Wohld says.

Therapeutic music is different from music therapy, which uses music to treat specific conditions.

For certified music practitioners, “It’s about centering yourself and focusing on the patient, with no expectation to the outcome,” Wohld says.

It’s not uncommon for a patient’s heart rate to go down after hearing the calming music, Loyola ICU nurse Ruth Schenn says.

“Some of our ventilator patients are very restless in the bed,” Schenn says. “You can just see the calming. We see that a lot.”

Scott Jones, 63, has been in the Loyola ICU for a month, with complications related to surgery for esophageal cancer. He is on a ventilator and unable to get out of bed or speak.

Jones’ musical tastes lean toward Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, according to his wife, Dawn, who brought in a boombox with some CDs to help mask the hospital sounds in his room.

For him, Wohld picked a song with a lilting beat and regular rests, aiming to help keep his breathing steady.

Jones listened to the first song with his eyes closed. Wohld finished and asked if he wanted to hear more. He motioned with a nod, “Yes.”

Sue Wohld plays the harp for a patient in intensive care at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Sue Wohld plays the harp for a patient in intensive care at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. | James Foster / Sun-Times

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