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Music and Medicine

It’s the end of a long day on Internal Medicine Ward H (“Hey” in Hebrew) at Soroka Medical Center, in the desert city of Be’er Sheva, Israel.

I’m a third-year medical student at the Medical School for International Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and this is the floor I’ve been assigned to for my six-week internal-medicine clerkship—my very first clinical rotation.

My fellow students and I wrap up our responsibilities for the day and head to the student room to gather our things. Stowing my stethoscope and notebook in my bag, I exchange it for my guitar, sitting in a dusty corner. Then, guitar in hand, I lock the room and walk out onto the ward.

The medical staff, particularly the nurses, always react enthusiastically at the sight of the guitar. It’s like a new face showing up at a gathering of old friends–something fresh and exciting.

I stand outside the room of a recently admitted patient and wait for two of my classmates, Shira and Stephanie, to arrive from their respective wards.

As we enter the room, a man in a blue hospital gown sits on the edge of the bed, feet on the floor. He’s bent over, hands on his knees, as if starting to lift himself up off the bed—but somehow you just know that he’s been sitting like this for quite a while.

His downturned eyes lift tiredly when we introduce ourselves.

“Would you like to hear some music?” we ask.

A faint smile twitches on his lips, likely a simple formality; his eyes are still half shut and heavy with exhaustion.

Throughout the day, I know Mr. Peretz as a seventy-nine-year-old patient with a whole slew of chronic medical problems and a recent severe exacerbation of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In this moment, though, I see Mr. Peretz not as a patient but simply as a person.

I play a few introductory notes on the guitar, and Shira, Stephanie and I begin to sing a popular old Israeli song:

Toda al kol ma sh’barata,
(Thank you for all that you created)

Toda al ma sh’li natata.
(Thank you for all that you have given me)

At the first few words, Mr. Peretz’s eyes widen. He stays bent over, but his mouth begins to move—to sing along:

Al tschok shel yeled
(For a child’s laughter)

Ushmei ha’tchelet…
(And the blue sky…)

He straightens slightly, sitting taller. I study his face for a moment. There is a sense of emerging recognition, depth, feeling. I wonder what is going on in his head, what memories are attached to these words and this tune, what is being brought to the surface.

Ha’bizutam, ani kayam.
(Because of all this, I exist.)

Ending chord. We smile and thank him.

“Toda, toda (Thank you, thank you),” he repeats several times, nodding. The lifeless eyes that greeted us when we arrived are now shining.

Shira, Stephanie and I move to the next room, where a teenage girl who’s undergoing a lengthy hospitalization sits with her parents. After chatting for a few minutes, we learn that, growing up, she lived in Portland, Oregon.

“Do you know Ed Sheeran?” I ask, hoping to conjure up musical common ground.

“YES!” Her eyes light up as she recognizes the name of a beloved singer and teen heartthrob.

I don’t deserve it, darling, you look perfect tonight….

Dad has his iPhone out and is filming us as we sing and play. Whatever his opinion of this gushy pop song, it clearly brings him great joy to see his daughter smiling. Mom holds on tight to Dad, a huge smile on her face, staring intently at her daughter, then at us, then at her daughter again. No words are spoken, but an overwhelmingly positive energy fills the air.

We make our way through the rest of the ward. There’s an elderly woman on a ventilator, encircled by her grandchildren, who request a song for her in her native Spanish; a Bedouin-Arab family whose members deluge us with sweets to express their gratitude after we sing an upbeat tune; a lone patient, a birthday balloon tied to his bedrail, who claps his hands as we sing “Happy Birthday.”

I have played music my whole life, but I never fully understood or appreciated what a raw gift it is until I started playing for patients—first as a premedical student back home at Boston Children’s Hospital, and now across the world at Soroka Medical Center.

Music is the closest thing to pure healing that I can imagine. Within the first moments of a song, the core of a human being can be touched, and with that, the deepest memories and emotions.

I’m sure you may have seen the videos of Alzheimer’s patients listening to music. (If not, please Google it!) Patients who can’t remember their own names can sing every word of “What a Wonderful World,” as performed by Louis Armstrong—and, more importantly, they come to life. This phenomenon may seem incomprehensible, even impossible, but it’s real. In my own music sessions with patients, I’ve seen it happen many times, and it never ceases to amaze me.

These moments are at the core of why I decided to go into health care.

Once I become a physician, I know that I most likely won’t be able to bring my guitar around with me on shifts—it may very well be inappropriate. In fact, as I continued through my clinical rotations this past year, I cut back on playing music for patients. I say that it’s because I got a lot busier, which is largely true; but it’s also because I started feeling less inspired. How sad is it that once we become a part of a healthcare team, the impulse to tend to our patients’ souls, as well as their bodies, begins to dwindle?

Is this loss of inspiration inevitable? I ask myself. What can I do to combat it?

As I begin my fourth year of medical school, these thoughts and questions are ongoing—and still unanswered.

I do hope that, one way or another, amid all of the dehumanizing pressures at work in health care, my fellow caregivers and I will find ways to acknowledge and celebrate our patients’ humanity, as well as our own. I can only promise myself and my patients that I’ll try my best to promote emotional and spiritual healing in my career as a physician—whether or not I have a guitar in my hand.

Rachel Anna Gaufberg is a fourth-year medical student at the Medical School for International Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I have always loved writing since I was a kid, but I rarely share my work. I have found the stories in Pulse inspirational, particularly throughout my clinical rotations.”


15 thoughts on “Music and Medicine”

  1. Rachel,

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story and your lovely talent with your patients. I share music whenever I can with my patients. As a palliative medicine physician, I find music really does connect patients back to the core of their humanity. And it helps connect us clinicians to our humanity. There is a human inside of every patient that we are doing our best to help. Sharing music is a wonderful and disarming way to do it. Please continue to look for opportunities to share as you progress through your career in medicine. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to talk about music in medicine!

  2. Thank you for your beautiful essay and sharing the importance of music as a healing strategy. My 92 yr old mother has dementia, she does not know what day it is or what happened 2 minutes ago. Sit her down at her piano and she can play “Sentimental Journey” by heart. She knows the words to every popular song from the 40’s and 50’s. She feels alive and joyful. Music really is the universal language and it is wired into our soul. As Belle Britain once said, “This is the luxury of music. It touches every key of memory and stirs all the hidden springs of sorrow and of joy. I love it for what it makes me forget and for what it makes me remember”

  3. Rachel,
    Your essay reminded me of a sad time many years ago when my elderly Dad was clinging to life and my Mother to him, their days full of stress, worry and sorrow. I can still remember the day I visited him in rehab, my Mother by his side , their usually somber faces now lit and smiling. A young girl, volunteer, had entered his room with her violin in hand and offered to play a favorite song for them. She sweetly played their requested ‘Take me out to the Ballgame’ and ‘You are my Sunshine’ – the last music they enjoyed together before his death a short time after. What joy she gave to them both! How grateful I was. The memory of their sweet faces always with me.
    Please dear Rachel, never stop playing music for your patients. It really does make a difference.

  4. You can bring your guitar to work as an attending. Please please do. I’m a palliative care doc and a singer. I think some of the most therapeutic moments in my career have been the times when I sang at a patient’s bedside.

  5. Ms. Gaufberg, todah rabah for your beautiful essay. I wish that all caregivers treated patients as people, not as an illness or a case number. I also believe that music is a universal language that unites all of us—and reminds us of our humanity. Keep healing through medicine and music; providers like you are needed and valued.
    Shalom—and Shana Tova. Good

  6. Rachel, thanks for inspiring me to remember the promotion of emotional and spiritual healing with your experiences and heartfelt message. It’s easy to burnout and emotionally numb oneself to the pressures of medical demands. Reflecting on moments like these helps the heart to stay open when it yearns to shut down in overwhelm. Keep playing, keep singing, keep writing, keep healing…

  7. I enjoyed reading your essay; it made me smile.
    I’m a pediatrician (also a musician): as my patients graduate from my practice and move on to primary care internists or family physicians, I usually warn them that it’s hard but so important to continue to take care of themselves: find the time to eat right, sleep, maintain social relationships, exercise and enjoy hobbies. I remind you of all of this but also to keep playing music. it will make you a happier, more well-rounded person and a better physician

  8. Dear Rachel,

    Along with your required studies, spend time playing music; it will heal you as well as your patients. And read more about the healing power of music.

    Shabbat Shalom and a Healthy New Year.

  9. Love this story and encourages others with musical talent and pursuing medicine To have two or more passions.
    Thank you for sharing.
    We have a Music and Medicine Program through Project Music Heals a national effort.

  10. Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay and for sharing your experience. I hope you will continue to find time to incorporate music into your work. Here are links to a few of my essays on this topic. Best wishes!,the%20social%20determinants%20of%20health.

  11. Beautiful!! I suspect you’ll find time to play. You get to make up the rules sometimes – and those rules can include music as comfort, therapy, and connection.

    Yasher koach!

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