MAYWOOD, Ill. - The soothing tones of a harp filled her room at Loyola University Hospital as Donna Kuzniar closed her eyes and mentally journeyed off to a more serene place and time, free of the pain and worry of her serious illness.
She remained in her tranquil haven for about 30 minutes until the harpist, internist and pediatrician Linda Fisher, completed her performance and quietly and unobtrusively packed up her music, stand and portable harp and prepared to leave.
"God is great," a tearful Kuzniar said after briefly thanking Fisher. "When you get somebody like Linda Fisher who puts herself out there, it's really encouraging. It's just so generous, so generous of her spirit."
Fisher is among a growing number of health-care professionals who play therapeutic music for patients in hospitals, hospices, homes and other clinical settings to help promote healing. She plays for adult, pediatric and adolescent patients suffering from illnesses ranging from cancer and stroke to trauma and cardiovascular problems.
"What a music practitioner does is provide a healing atmosphere with live music at the bedside of patients," said Fisher, assistant professor, division of internal medicine/pediatrics, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood, Ill. "In many instances patients don't even have to interact physically or verbally with a practitioner in order for this form of therapy to be effective."
Fisher has performed for hundreds of patients at Loyola. Though she performs a wide variety of musical genres, popular tunes are not a regular part of her repertoire. But she does try to take into account individual musical preferences and carefully observes patients' reactions and adjusts to find the music that best suits patients' therapeutic needs.
"The music I play is not necessarily familiar," said Fisher, who is finishing up coursework towards certification as a music for healing practitioner. "It's healing music that puts the patient in a special place of peace as far as the music's rhythm, melodies and tonal qualities."
It's been long recognized that music can have a profound effect on the human body by easing anxiety and promoting relaxation. However, research indicates that music in a clinical setting can do much more by aiding healing. Studies done in the early 1990s at Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., and St. Mary's Hospital in Mequon, Wis., concluded music "significantly" lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery.
In 2007, a study in Germany found that music therapy helped improve the motor skills in patients recovering from strokes. Other studies have found that music therapy can boost the immune system, improve mental focus, help control pain, create a feeling of well being and greatly reduce anxiety of patients awaiting surgery.
"The theory seems to be that live vibration, which is essentially what music is, helps promote human healing since from our nervous system to our very atoms, we as human beings have a lot of vibrations coursing through our bodies," said Fisher who performs for any patient interested.
Fisher decided to take up a musical instrument 12 years ago as a way to ease the stress and tension of busy days seeing and treating patients. She settled on a harp because she was always taken with the instrument's unique acoustic qualities.
"I was driving home from work thinking that I needed another diversion, something more artsy," said Fisher, who is board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics.
She periodically performs music for prayer and meditation in Loyola's chapel, plays religious music in her church and is a member of a harp ensemble called Harpe Diem. She got the idea to incorporate the harp as part of her medical mission after attending a therapeutic harp conference in Salt Lake City.
"I thought this was something I could do because I'm used to working with patients and I thought this would be another aspect of healing," she said. "It's like Loyola's motto, 'We also treat the human spirit.'" This program does make a difference. Putting people in a better spirit or better state of mind is an important part of healing. It's an important part of what we do here at Loyola."