Palliative Care, With A Soundtrack

Apr 27, 2015

Usually its IV poles being wheeled down hospital hallways. Today, it’s a harp.

In the palliative care program at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, music is used, along with medicine, to help patients manage chronic illness.


Almost every day Mary LeBus brings her harp – whose name is Joey – into patients’ rooms.

As a certified music practitioner, LeBus is trained to use music to help people relax, and sometimes find energy. If patients aren’t able to talk, she watches their monitors or their breathing for clues as to how they’re feeling.

As LeBus delicately plucks the strings of her harp, Sherry Parks sits with a white blanket over her lap. Parks, who has colon cancer, remembers when LeBus first rolled into her room with the harp in August.

“I thought this is a great thing!” she says. “I think that music, and animal therapy, things like that are some of the most relaxing, invigorating (…) bring-you-back-to-life kinds of things you can do.”

Drumming Away The Pain  

Judy Ritchie has been playing music to comfort cancer patients for almost a decade.

Sometimes she’ll play for patients who are in and out of the hospital for years – sometimes in their final moments.

“It’s an honor to be present at that sacred time,” Ritchie says. “The person who is trying to die is trying to let go, and so if we do something arrhythmic with long pauses that helps them have a peacefulness and a reassurance that they can go and that it’s going to be okay.”

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA

Ritchie, who is on staff at Baylor, plays the flute, lap harp and drums. For patient Sabrina Booker-Murray, Ritchie brings out a tone drum.

“I have been on the phone telling everyone about this music and this hospital,” Booker-Murray says. Booker-Murray, who has breast cancer that’s spread to other parts of her body, says she’s never been in a hospital where music is a part of the healing and coping process.

“But I thank god he’s bringing me through and I thank these ladies because they’re very helpful,” she says. “They have really helped me to relax and forget my problems.”

Making Alternative Health Care Part Of Treatment 

Several studies show that palliative care — interdisciplinary treatment for patients with long-term health challenges — can decrease hospitalizations and increase patient satisfaction.

“A lot of times we think that patients need to have their symptoms managed with medications,” says Marlene McHugh. “But for many patients symptoms can be managed with touch, with music.”

McHugh is an assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University Medical Center and Associate Director of Palliative Care at Montefiore Medical Center. She co-authored a 2013 study on acute palliative care.

As a traditional health care provider, McHugh is excited by the idea of a more holistic approach to coping with chronic illness. The greatest challenge, she says, is tight budgets at hospitals.

“We don’t have the ability to hire as many people as we did in the past,” McHugh says. “So I think until we get private funding or people privately pay, [alternative health care in palliative care] will be limited. Especially in areas where they don’t have extra resources.”

Hospitals are choosing to finance palliative care programs – there are now more nearly 1,500 in the U.S. And even with limited resources, and limited research on music therapy, some are betting on song.

Hospitals are choosing to finance palliative care programs – there are now more nearly 1,500 in the U.S. And even with limited resources, and limited research on music therapy, some are betting on song.

Lauren Silverman reportes on health, science and technology at KERA Public Media in Dallas, Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @lsilverwoman