A little music goes a long way

Jim Vaughn is fighting an auto immune disease at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C. He gets an IV treatment every two weeks. For years, his treatment has been a dreaded process in a sterile environment -- until the hospital introduced music therapy.

"It brings a level of healing or a level of medication to you on an emotional level,” said Vaughn, as he sits wrapped up in a recliner for his treatment. “On a non-physical level, it makes me more receptive to being here. I'm not as concerned about how fast it's dripping and what the pump is doing."

Vaughn’s body is basically attacking itself, he says. His disorder affects the nervous system. He has constant pain as well as limited mobility in his hands and feet. Hundreds of others get treatment for a variety of fatal illnesses at the hospital. That is why Lourdes Lorenz, the director of integrative health at Mission Hospital, hired a full-time music therapist who accompanies patients during treatment.

"There have been many studies that have shown that it does reduce anxiety, that it does alleviate pain. And what it does is it enhances what the physicians are already doing,” said Lorenz. “It just complements the therapies that the patients are getting here in the cancer treatment center. To be able to have something that is going to complement their healing -- I think is a great asset.”

Mission’s therapist is Michelle Bonn, who can play just about anything a patient requests. She serves as a pleasant distraction, a counselor and a friend.

“You can see the physical reaction of somebody just sigh,” Bonn said. “They’re not focusing on their disease and illness -- and thinking about music. It has this amazing power of stirring memories and emotions, and brings you from one place that might be in despair or feeling angry or scared to helping you feel very comfortable.”

There are about 150 music therapists in North Carolina and at least 100 going to school for it. They treat patients from pediatric cancer cases to Alzheimer’s and even hospice patients. Care Partners Hospice in Asheville is one of those facilities that uses the therapy for its dozens of patients.

“Music therapy, in addition to other therapies, is one of the powerful modalities that addresses not only an experience that is hurt through our senses, but something that goes in much deeper from early experiences that affect things like mood, attitude and outlook,” says Dr. Charlie Vargas, medical director at Care Partners Hospice.

Lauren DiMaio has been a music therapist for twelve years and she sees significant improvements with her hospice clients – many of whom are coping with a terminal illness or the loss of a partner.

“Using music when people are suffering has integrity to it,” DiMaio said. “And to be able to put 60 years of research and training into these interventions and music experiences is important to me. It feels validating.”

The use of musical therapy to assist patients is a growing trend. North Carolina is pushing bipartisan legislation to license the practice. It would be joining North Dakota and Nevada as the third state to do so. More than two dozen states are considering similar laws. State representative Patsy Keever (D) supports the bill. She says it’s recognition of the validity of music as a therapy.

Because at a time when many are going through so much – a little added therapy isn’t just music to the ears, it is treatment for the body.

“The older I get, the more I realize how important music is in our lives,” Keever said. “Politics divides us and music brings us together. I have watched a friend of mine die very peacefully while a therapist worked with her.”