Healthwatch 16: Music as Healing Art

SCRANTON -- A hospital's intensive care unit is where you'll find seriously injured or very ill patients -- and of course, often worried family members.

Geisinger-Community Medical Center in Scranton thought it was a place that could use a calming influence and they invited us in to hear it for ourselves.

You hear it before you see it -- calming music, inviting you closer.

It takes a moment to remember you're not in a concert hall or a dimly lit bar. We're in the waiting room of the intensive care unit at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton.

You'll find Mark Woodyatt on violin, and Jacob Cole on a relatively new instrument called the handpan, once a week here at GCMC.

"Everybody knows what this is," said Cole, referring to the violin. "But nobody knows what this UFO thing is. Everybody asks what it is; a lot of times I have to stop playing."

"We're coming in, we just want to help," said Woodyatt.  "You never know who you're going to run into. And it's something that's beyond what we even know. We just try to put our hearts into the music and not think too much."

Mark and Jacob, fixtures on the local music scene, are also part of a program called Arts Heal, which looks to treat patients and their families in a variety of ways using, for example, art, yoga, and music.

Music as a therapy has been utilized for centuries.

Dr. Laurie Ann Loiacono has worked in an ICU for 30 years. She says studies done on premature infants all the way up to older adults conclude that music isn't just pleasant; it can be medically beneficial to a patient and his or her family.

"Levels of stress, coping, even the alleviation of the perception of pain can be quantified, (and have) been shown in certain patient populations improvements in blood pressure and heart rate," Dr. Loiacono explained.

Nurse Megan Walbeck has seen music's effects first hand. She says the ICU is a place where people are often very ill; they're vulnerable, scared, and sometimes confused -- a wide and difficult range of emotions.

"Being able to provide a therapy or program that goes beyond the machines and the medications we use every day really adds a dimension of care," said Walbeck.

Arts Heal is a partnership between private and public groups. It started over the summer when, by chance, Lackawanna County and a business called Traditional Home Health Care in Dunmore realized they were looking to do the same thing: bring the arts to a health setting.

Maureen McGuigan is deputy director of arts and culture for Lackawanna County.

"It's great to see such innovative thinking in our neck of the woods," said McGuigan. "All of these people are willing to take a risk and try something that's really very new."

Kaitlin Cocker, age 14, calls it a nice touch. Her grandfather had just been admitted to the ICU and her family was waiting for a diagnosis.

"We're all just trying to support him in this," said Kaitlin. "He's one of our family members and we love him, so we're stressing out, but we're all good."

It may not have the power to cure anything, but if music can create a safe, healing space for those who need it most, those behind Arts Heal are willing to give it a shot.

"Music is so universal. And it speaks to something beyond ourselves, and I think people in tremendous pain and suffering here can benefit from that," McGuigan added.

The music portion of Arts Heal is only a few weeks old but GCMC officials say they've gotten such good feedback, they're hoping to expand. Right now, you can hear the music Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning at 4 p.m.