"Harp Therapy" Aids Healing Process at Holy Redeemer Hospital

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December 26, 2018

"Harp Therapy" Aids Healing Process at Holy Redeemer Hospital

On a Wednesday afternoon in December, Certified Harp Therapist, Mary Anne straps on her 7.5 pound Nightingale Harp and ventures to the Emergency Department. As she quietly walks past the rooms, she spots one with the curtain open. A woman with, what appears to be her teenage daughter, is inside. The daughter appears to be in pain. As Mary Anne walks by, she catches the mother’s eye. The mother is intrigued to find a harpist roaming through the ER.

“Would you mind if I played a little music?” Mary Anne asks.

The mother nods her head while the patient passes a typical teenage incredulous look. Mary Anne begins to play. While she rarely talks while playing she offers, “Sometimes when you close your eyes, you can relax more,” she says. The mother gently closes her eyes and the patient does as well. Within two minutes, both mother and daughter are asleep. A nurse comes in to check on her patient as Mary Anne quietly glides out of the room and onto her next offering.

“It is my dream job at my dream place,” Mary Anne says. “I’ve witnessed the care the staff gives. Everyone pours pieces of themselves into the work they do. I’m in awe.”

Her next stop is the Medical Oncology Unit. She spots a woman receiving treatment and asks if she’d like to hear a little music. The patient is eating lunch and says “sure, why not.”

“Just imagine you are at a fancy restaurant,” Mary Anne muses as the patient gingerly sips soup from her spoon.

Mary Anne plays two songs before deciding to move onto the Inpatient Hospice Unit. She can tell when a patient is engaged and senses when it is time to stop.

Upon reaching the Inpatient Hospice Unit, the first thing Mary Anne does is visit the nurses’ station. She looks for the patient board and memorizes the religious affiliation and room number of all the patients on the floor. She has a repertoire of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic songs at the ready. She knocks on the door of a patient. The patient’s son sits on a chair, facing his mother.

“Can I play for your mother?” Mary Anne asks.

“Yes, please,” the son replies.

Mary Anne gently plucks the 27 strings and as a beautiful soft melody fills the room. The patient falls asleep as Mary Anne’s tempo matches the patient’s breathing. The patient’s son watches his mom, grateful for the peaceful moment she’s experiencing.

Everything she does is intentional. Mary Anne is very careful as to what colors she chooses to wear on her therapy days.

“I never wear white. When people are nearing death, I’ve been asked if I am an angel,” she says. “I don’t wear hard colors either like reds or oranges and I rarely wear black.”

When death is imminent, Mary Anne will match her tempo to the patient’s respiratory rate. She plays a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar music, so not to trigger specific emotions or memories for the patient.  Mary Anne plays continuously in an effort to avoid applause after each song. Her offering is prescriptive, not a performance.

As she concludes, she says farewell to the patient’s son. They make small talk about musical instruments as the son shares a fun story about a childhood drum set. Mary Anne slowly exits the room and heads down the hall to visit another patient.

After a gentle knock on the door, she asks permission to play. The patient declines.

“I never take offense if someone declines my offering. Giving the patient a choice gives them power over something. It gives them something they can actually say no to when many things feel out of their control,” Mary Anne says.

She plays down the hall so patients and families can hear her before she appears in the doorway. She checks on a patient she plays for often but finds him in a very restful sleep. Not wanting to disturb him, she exits and prepares to go to her next location.

“Miss, here!” a gentleman calls down the hall, stopping Mary Anne in her tracks.

“I don’t mean to bother you but if you have time would you come here?” he asks.

Mary Anne smiles, turns and proceeds to the room. It is decorated with beautiful Christmas decorations. The patient sits up, alert in her bed and flanked by two visitors, one on each side. She requests Christmas music and Mary Anne plays a beautiful rendition of “What Child Is This?”

As the therapy concludes, Mary Anne wishes everyone well and makes her way to the Senior Behavioral Health Unit. Here she play familiar and lively songs. This activates the patients’ long-term memory recall as they find themselves singing along with the harp.

A patient in a wheelchair sings every word of Amazing Grace as her visitor looks on in awe. Music is a powerful memory.

After spending some time with the patients, she concludes for the day. Her favorite place to play is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She loves playing near a crying baby and watching the blue oxygenation line rise. She can see the medical benefits of her therapy right before eyes.

Mary Anne has been playing the harp since 2005. She’s a mother to a son and two daughters. One daughter took up piano and became a very talented pianist. Her other daughter wanted to play a musical instrument. Mary Anne encouraged her to try the harp so she wouldn’t have to compete with her very talented sister. Her daughter was very good at it, but it wasn’t in her heart. She left the harp behind when she went to college. That’s when Mary Anne picked up the harp.

Then, serendipitously, a friend shared a New York Times article with Mary Anne about a heart surgeon in Chicago who refused to perform surgeries without a live harpist present in the operating room. It was the first time Mary Anne saw a connection with healthcare and the harp.

“That is what I want to do,” she thought.

She spent two years training with Bedside Harp in Bensalem and became a certified harp therapist. She worked at a variety of hospice agencies throughout the area but really found her home at Holy Redeemer.

“The nurses are heroes of mine.  Everyone from the environmental services staff to the physicians are extraordinary. I’ve never seen anyone work the way the staff at Holy Redeemer do,” she says.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019 by Lesia Schofer
I was so happy to read this article and would like to thank Mary Anne and Holy Redeemer for gifting patients with this wonderful experience. Harp music is so beautiful to listen to. Thank you for sharing.
Saturday, December 29, 2018 by clementine Lewis
my husband was in the hospice unit when we heard the harp music. He did not have long to live and was very restless. He laid still and listened to the music. It helped him to relax. He said he loved the music and said he hoped he would here it again in heaven.
Friday, December 28, 2018 by Anonymous
As a volunteer at Hospice at Holy Redeemer, I had a beautiful experience the first time I heard the harp being played in the Hospice Unit. While sitting in the office, I heard the harp from a distance being played and suddenly a male voice from a patient was singing along with the harpist. I will never forget that moment. Just beautiful.
Thursday, December 27, 2018 by Maureen Runyen-Lynch
Mary Ann played for my mother when she was dying. It was a beautiful memory that I now have. Even though it was sad, Mary Ann made that a beautiful memory that I now cherish in my heart!

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