Music and Medicine: Bach Partitas on the Covid Ward

by David Elpern

For almost a decade, I have used music when performing biopsies and excisions in my office. I got the idea from my friend Tim Lee, an ophthalmologist on Kauai. That led to a study published in 2014.1 Music is a simple, inexpensive aid that we use every day in my office.

So, I read the article, Bedside Concerts Comforting Virus Patients by Benjamin Weiser in the May 4th, 2020 New York Times with particular interest. It features Rachel Easterwood, whose idea it was to stage concerts for Covid 19 ICU patients. Easterwood is a professionally trained musician-turned-ER physician from Columbia P&S (the same medical school that my friend, Dr. Lee, also a trained musician, attended).

Easterwood said, “Music takes an enormous amount of dedication, but medicine takes way more.” A colleague of hers observed, “What can disrupt this pattern of despair [in our sick patients] is the music.”

The Columbia physicians found that “[P]erhaps no composer’s work has been played more often for their coronavirus patients than Bach” describing his music as “soothing, uplifting and kind of a melancholy that people appreciate.”

The pianist Henrique Einsenmann’s playlist for patients at Presbyterian Allen Hospital.

“Some of the musicians said they found playing for the patients deeply emotional, and they have cried while performing.”

In my office, we have patients select what they want to hear and then play it for them on Spotify. Dr. Easterwood recruited a group of her professional musician friends who perform for the patients in real time over FaceTime. Dr. Lee has put on live keyboard presentations in the O.R. for his patients before eye surgery. There are many paths.

As we focus on the Covid science, on intubations, ventilators, and antivirals, it’s refreshing to also reflect on the humanity that we, as healers, and our patients need.

Robertson Davies delivered the David Coit Gilman oration, “Can a Doctor Be A Humanist?” at Johns Hopkins on November 18, 1984. In it, he asked, “What can you, as a humanist physician, do to fight stupidity? First you must ensure your own complete inoculation against the plague by a massive daily application of art, music and literature.” Dr. Easterwood appears to be doing just that.

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, William Congreve

Reference:

  1. Music as Complement to Surgery. Online J Complimentary and Patient-Centered Dermatology April 2014. (A link to the full text in in the article) ojcpcd.com
  2. Robertson Davies. Can a Doctor Be a Humanist? In The Merry Life: Reflections on Reading, Writing, in the World of Books.” (Penguin 1997

For further reading on Bach and healing, see: “One Hundred Miracles: A Memoir of Music and Survival ” by Zuzana Ruzickova. Bloomsbury 2019

Also see: “My Singing Angel” by Jane Babin.  This is a moving vignette by a woman with ALS whose hospital stay was made less traumatic by a janitorial person who sang to her when she was a patient at one of the most prestigious hospitals in America.

And… look at YoYo Ma’s “Songs of Comfort Project.”

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