Music Therapy Helps Patients Heal

Betsy Hartman. Photo by Mike Shuffain

Betsy Hartman. Photo by Mike Shuffain

Patients visiting the Swedish Cancer Institute at Issaquah quietly chat or work at the puzzle table while awaiting radiation treatment. Dressed in gowns, the group includes teenagers to senior citizens and a spectrum of diagnoses. On a recent morning, a sense of blissful calm filled the air as an angelic voice sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” accompanied by music therapist Betsy Hartman on harp.

“It was a patient singing who is a beautiful vocalist. The entire waiting room was enthralled,” says Amy Christian, oncology nurse and manager of Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) Issaquah and Eastside Oncology. “To connect emotionally and find something so meaningful through music really adds another dimension of caring and peacefulness for patients.”

SCI Issaquah began offering music therapy in spring 2015. Hartman, founder of PNW Music Therapy, visits a few times monthly and hopes to expand the music therapy program, provided future grant funding and donations are identified.

It is an example of growing awareness and incorporation of music therapy at sites ranging from hospitals to nursing homes, special-needs programs for autism and Down Syndrome, mental health institutions and more.

Techniques vary. Music therapists sometimes play for patients to increase relaxation or divert focus from pain or medical procedures. Patients may learn to play themselves, which can encourage focus, physical endurance, and motor skills. For conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, familiar songs can tap into positive memories.

“In cancer communities, there is a lot of pain that can be associated with treatment both physically and emotionally,” Hartman says. “I work with patients to develop coping strategies. If they can better manage the emotional stress, it can help with overall healing.”

Music therapy traces its roots to treating World War I soldiers. Seattle Pacific University (SPU) offers the only American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) accredited program in Washington. The field has dramatically expanded in the region since SPU officially launched its program in 2009. To become a board-certified music therapist, students become proficient on guitar, piano, and voice and receive specialized training in Physical Therapy and Exercise Science, Psychology, or Special Education. Additionally, 180 hours of supervised practicum experience is required as well as a six-month full-time internship and board-certification exam.

“Music therapy is both clinically and evidence-based. There are decades of research that support how and why music therapy works,” says Carlene Brown, current chair of SPU’s Music Department and founder and director of the music therapy program.

In 1995, Brown conducted a clinical study at Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Center on the use of music therapy for post-operative pain.

“Music was found to be quite effective … there are alternative ways to ease pain and suffering.”

“Music was found to be quite effective,” Brown says. “We’re used to automatically using the pharmaceutical approach, but there are alternative ways to ease pain and suffering.”

In 2011, the AMTA received a $400,000 gift to launch the Wilson Trust Music Therapy Project to further the field in the Puget Sound. Patti Catalano is the trust’s regional project manager.

“I think music therapy is definitely growing on the Eastside,” Catalano says. “It’s a very global community with families often moving here for work. They may have received music therapy elsewhere, or they’re excellent at doing research themselves and seeking it out.”

Catalano is also program manager at Bellevue-based Music Works Northwest, a nonprofit music school. It offers music therapy to offsite clients including Bellevue’s skilled-nursing facility The Springs at Pacific Regent. Onsite school classes focus on children on the autism spectrum. A visitor watching a group or private session is likely to see youngsters engaging with drums, xylophones, keyboards, and more. Goals include increasing attention span, communication, flexible thinking, and improving motor skills.

“She always loved music, but there is a huge difference between just listening to music at home and interacting with the therapist,” says Andrea Elderkin, whose 7-year-old autistic daughter attends weekly sessions at Music Works Northwest. “There is the social part, communication, and how it helps her self-esteem.”

Music connects people of all ages by expressing what is sometimes beyond words. Hartman’s impromptu Patsy Cline session at SCI Issaquah resulted in the patient’s toddler granddaughter participating with a pair of shaker instruments.

“We need to provide a wider variety of patient and community care and help people understand how much music supports healing,” Hartman says. “We will go wherever the doors are open.”

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