My Experience with the Healing Power of Music

Have you ever been to an Intensive Care Unit? It's not the most peaceful place to be in. The typical scene is such: fluorescent bright lights on, alarms blinking. Nurses scurrying back and forth. Emergency codes being called on the PA. Doctors running about in a frenzy. In the midst of all the chaos - the hapless patients. Dozens of wires surround them. Tubes go in and out of their ailing bodies, hospital gowns loose on their thin frames. It appears as though modern medical technology is the only thing that is keeping them alive.  As an anaesthesiologist working day in and day out in this sort of intensive care setting, it was emotionally draining just to watch the suffering of these patients. These patients were typically depressed, worried about their illnesses, separated from their loved ones for days in the ICU (infection control dictates that we can't allow patients' relatives to visit for more than an hour a day). Moreover, they were in a noisy, chaotic environment which frazzled their nerves further. That got me thinking, and reading extensively, about how I could improve the quality of life of these patients. They received all the medicines they needed at the hospital. But was anything being done to take care of their sorrow? Their loneliness? Their mental state? How could we make their mood a little better?  A colleague suggested we conduct a little study based on an article she had read - the effect of Music Therapy on the critically ill. The concept was simple. Play gentle, appealing music to these sick patients for a few hours a day while they are awake, and monitor the effect it has on their vital signs and mood. We decided to try it out on our patients and see what effect it had. We began the study in earnest with a young mother who had just delivered a newborn, but lost a lot of blood in the process and landed up in our care, pale and struggling to breathe. She would sob for hours every day, longing to be with her little one. When we described the study to her, a glimmer of hope lit up her otherwise tired face. We played for her a selection of Indian instrumental music which I had personally found incredibly soothing. Fifteen minutes after we played the music for her, we found her peacefully asleep, her heart rate settled into a healthy rhythm, her breathing regular. I wouldn't say that music cured this mother, but it definitely upped her mood. I saw a smile on her face the next morning when she saw me at rounds and asked me, "Can I choose the music this time?" Our study wasn't all roses. There were difficult patients as well. Patients who were on a breathing tube, on a ventilator. Patients who couldn't even say no if they didn't want music in their ears. Was it right to subject these individuals to our study? We had one particular elderly gentleman, a patient of liver cirrhosis who violently pulled the earphones out of his ears as though we had subjected him to some sort of torture! ICU delirium is a real entity - patients become paranoid and detached from reality with the stress that they are in, so in that position, they aren't willing to listen to reason. Largely though, most patients seemed calmer, their pulse rate and blood pressure seemed more settled, and we felt like we were helping them emotionally and psychologically, in a small way. As a doctor who had always thought myself to be in the wrong profession (I would have loved to be a musician primarily!), I was beyond thrilled that my love for music could be translated into some form of therapy for these ailing patients. It's not just critically ill patients who benefit from music in a hospital setting. Music therapy has even been found to improve symptoms in patients of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease! Interestingly enough, patients of Alzheimer's who could not even remember their relatives' names could remember entire songs! Patients with anxiety, depression and schizophrenia have also found significant improvement in their symptoms from listening to music. The healing power of music on the psyche is all-pervading, and I hope that in the future it will become a more mainstream form of therapy, integrated into the tenets of modern medicine.

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