Healing hospital patients with music

Enloe Medical Center’s Music for Healing Program brings needed comfort to patients and their families

Enloe Medical Center’s Music for Healing guitarists Ed Stopper (left) and Dave Pierce play and sing for cancer patients Teresa Wilkerson and Don Jasper (at rear) in the Infusion Therapy clinic of the hospital’s Regional Cancer Center on Cohasset Road.

Enloe Medical Center’s Music for Healing guitarists Ed Stopper (left) and Dave Pierce play and sing for cancer patients Teresa Wilkerson and Don Jasper (at rear) in the Infusion Therapy clinic of the hospital’s Regional Cancer Center on Cohasset Road.

Photo By Vic Cantu

In more ways than one, rays of badly needed sunshine came into the life of cancer patient Teresa Wilkerson on a recent Thursday afternoon.

This happened while she was sitting in Enloe Medical Center’s Infusion Therapy clinic, receiving a therapeutic iron treatment. Wilkerson has been receiving care at the Enloe Regional Cancer Center for more than two months, since her first breast-cancer surgery. She will undergo a regimen of five chemotherapy treatments between now and August.

Wilkerson was also being treated that day, for the second time since her surgery, to a live musical performance by two volunteer musicians.

The eyes of this 43-year-old wife and mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 4, welled up with tears of joy as the two acoustic guitarists serenaded her with The Eagles’ classic song “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” The sun shone brightly through the many west-facing windows as Wilkerson listened, a bandanna wrapped around her head, which was clean-shaven due to her ongoing chemotherapy treatments.

“It brings tears to my eyes how well they treat you here,” the Chico resident said. “These are the most caring people I’ve ever seen.”

The guitarists, Dave Pierce and Ed Stopper, are volunteers in Enloe’s Music for Healing Program. The program seeks to help patients heal by presenting live music to them and their visiting friends and families, and is just one element of Enloe’s nurturing, patient-centered Planetree approach to patient care.

Enloe Volunteer Services coordinator Callie Musset says she tries to have at least one musician playing somewhere in Enloe once per day. The most frequently played areas are the Cancer Center, the hospital’s main lobby and the Enloe Behavioral Health Center on Cohasset Road, Musset said.

Pierce, who also works as a patient-support clerk for the cancer center, expertly strums a 12-string guitar, and Stopper, an emergency dispatcher for Enloe, plays a traditional six-string. The duo continued playing and singing for another hour that day, bringing an oasis of live musical enjoyment to the seven patients resting on cushy reclining chairs in a pair of adjoining lobby rooms of the Infusion Therapy clinic. The patients’ families, friends and attending nurses also soaked up the softly played pop hits, mostly from the 60s and 70s.

Pierce started the ball rolling on Enloe’s volunteer music program in 2006, when he performed as part of the cancer center’s Healing Arts Program, the precursor to the Music for Healing Program. The latter is overseen by Volunteer Services with help from the Planetree program, an international nonprofit organization that advocates the importance of arts and entertainment in the healing process.

Pierce was soon playing to cheer up the lives of the sick with his longtime friend and playing partner, Stopper. He said he has previously been a firefighter and a paramedic, and that helping those in need greatly inspires him.

“Ed and I once had a patient say, ‘I was ready to give up, but listening to you gave me hope to hang in there,’” said Pierce.

Stopper, too, is inspired by assisting people in crisis situations. In addition to taking calls from locals experiencing a medical emergency, he has also been a member of Butte County Search and Rescue for 17 years, the last two as its captain.

Pierce loves music—particularly live music—and says that “if performed right,” it can “soothe the patients’ souls” and provide a “pleasant distraction” to patients and their families.

“It facilitates a more healing environment and has more therapeutic power than just popping a CD in your player,” he said of live music. “It’s a whole other dimension of healing when you have a real human being playing for you who cares about your well-being.”

Early in the program, one of the few performance places was the Coronary Care Unit on the second floor of Enloe’s main building. The hospital’s Planetree coordinator, Tracy Hunt, tells the story of how demand for it spread quickly.

“One day nurses in the Intensive Care Unit next door heard one of the guitarists playing and said, ‘You need to come in here!’ So he did.” said Hunt.

The Music for Healing program is one of Hunt’s favorites, and she said it’s not rare to see patients cry during a performance. But the profound effect is not limited to the patients alone.

“Many of the musicians are just starting to play publicly, and you can see how it changes them as they go along,” said Hunt.

The program expanded in 2008 when volunteers from Chico State’s Music Department were added. Those volunteers worked out so well that auditions, held every two years, are now open to the entire community. Most of the participants are guitarists, but a harpist and a pianist have also been among the volunteer musicians. The last auditions were held June 7 and letters advising the three chosen candidates should go out any day now. Once confirmed, the musicians will go through a volunteer-orientation process and will probably begin playing by mid-July.

The candidates are chosen by Pierce, sometimes aided by a panel of several others. In order to guide the applicants on the type of music to play, Pierce advises them to imagine what kind of music they would like to hear if they were a visiting family member of a patient or if they themselves were confined to a hospital with worries about their own illness.

Musset says that any musician with basic skills can audition, and finalists are those who have an appealing, soothing style and repertoire. Karaoke and horns are not considered appropriate.

“Chico is a perfect place to get musicians because we have so many who are not full-time professionals,” said Pierce.

Don Jasper, a 63-year-old lung-cancer patient and grandfather, was also in the Infusion Therapy clinic. He has received care at Enloe for three years.

“Not only are these the greatest nurses I’ve ever had, but I feel extra lucky every time I get to hear the musicians,” said Jasper.

Though Jasper’s stay at the Cancer Center is indefinite, his experience is greatly enriched by the music program.

“You don’t even know,” said Jasper. “Any little break in the storm helps.”