Music as Medicine

By Celine Thum

My first patient encounter was not in medical school. It was during college, when I was required to play violin at the geriatric psychiatry lounge as part of a course called “Music as Medicine.”

The audience was not my usual: patients half-asleep in chairs, nurses running between rooms, and rounding residents discussing treatment plans. Unsure of what to expect from my “music as medicine” session, I ignored the seemingly uninterested audience and began to play.

During my performance, I was interrupted by a patient. We briefly conversed about music, family and her past experiences. After the session, I was informed by the resident that the patient that I had interacted with had been belligerent, incomprehensible and hostile for weeks with no sign of improvement. The resident was astonished by the improvement of the patient’s dementia after my session. My experience was the first time the patient was socially acceptable since admittance. By listening to music, the patient could recall family members and distant events, and hold a conversation.

Perhaps it all was a coincidence that the patient improved during my visit, but it touched me greatly to believe that I gave a patient, even if for a moment, some sanity and memories of a full yet forgotten life.

Since that day, I continued to have anecdotal experiences that brought me to believe that music has the power to temporarily decrease the level of dementia in Alzheimer’s patients. During my course, I also had the opportunity to play Disney songs on the pediatric unit. Many of the children were extremely ill and had been there for weeks. Throughout their day, they are told what is wrong, given medicines, and barraded with tests. My visits served as a distraction from their ailments. My music provided them with familiarity that extended beyond hospital walls.

Two years after those experiences, I started medical school at Rush. Eager for clinical interactions my first year, I founded a program called “Rush Harmony” in which students of all disciplines can volunteer to play music for patients. Unlike any other student-run organization in the midwest, we currently have over 30 student musicians that play at Kellogg and Bowman inpatient units. Every year, the incoming medical students have an opportunity to serve on the steering committee to lead the program and coordinate performances with various units.

The success of this program has been fueled by the enthusiasm of staff, patients and family for our performances. Although I am leaving Rush to start my residency training, I am certain that this program will continue to provide music as medicine for years to come.

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