The melodies of healing

Music therapist Sam Minevich playing his guitar on the Geriatrics floor
Music therapist Sam Minevich playing his guitar on the Geriatrics floor

During the COVID-19 pandemic, music therapists offer comfort through song

Sam Minevich strummed the opening notes of a Johnny Cash tune and within moments, the mood on the Jewish General Hospital’s Geriatrics floor began to shift. Patients came out of their rooms to listen, and some swayed in their hospital gowns to the rhythms of his guitar.

The transformative power of music therapy was on full display.

During a year of unparalleled stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, music therapists in our CIUSSS have provided comfort and relief through song. They stepped in with musical companionship at a time when patients couldn’t receive visits from family, reaching across the solitude with melody. At times, their voices and instruments were a soothing soundtrack against the beeps of medical monitors.

“Music has the power to transport people to other places and stir very powerful emotions,” Mr. Minevich says. “It can be a catharsis.”

Musical therapists operate in sites across our CIUSSS, including in rehabilitation and long-term care, and they celebrated their work during Music Therapy Awareness Month in March. Studies have shown that music therapy can improve medical outcomes by promoting physical and psychological healing, reducing pain and easing anxiety. It can also inspire feeling of peace and hope.

Samantha Borgal is a music therapist in Palliative Care at the JGH, where some of her patients have been COVID-19 survivors. She works with multiple instruments, including a guitar, piano and a drum, using different approaches to establish a connection with patients—even those who don’t immediately respond.

“Some people will say, ‘I’m not into music,’” Ms. Borgal says. Then she asks them what they liked when they were younger. Studies have found that songs from a person’s adolescence and early twenties have the most lasting impact. “They start reminiscing about Paul Anka and Elvis Presley, and all of a sudden I’m singing one of their favourite songs, and it’s like they’re meeting an old friend.”

Music has become an even more precious commodity during the pandemic, when people have been deprived of live performances.

“Sometimes, I’m the last voice they hear,” Ms. Borgal says of her work in the Palliative Care Unit.

The impact in a hospital setting was evident one day recently when Mr. Minevich arrived in Geriatrics with his Gibson guitar. Standing in the hallway near the nursing station, he went through a song-list that ranged from “All Shook Up” to “Hava Nagila,” and soon a crowd began to gather. A woman wheeled her father out in a wheelchair to listen. Elsa Fay Donaldson, an 83-year-old patient, came out of her room and started dancing.

“While I’m listening to music, I don’t feel sick,” Ms. Donaldson said. “It makes me feel alive.”

Because our CIUSSS serves a culturally diverse population, the music therapists have adopted a broad musical repertoire, ensuring they can tailor their offerings to patients’ preferences. Besides tunes in English and French, they can collectively sing in a dozen languages, switching on cue to “Guantanamera” in Spanish, “Moscow Nights” in Russian, or a folk tune in Yiddish. Mr. Minevich and his colleague Henri Oppenheim say that they follow patients’ lead to “find a musical space” together. Mr. Minevich recalls playing “O Sole Mio” for an older patient with leukemia. The man said it reminded him of his childhood in Italy, and he began to cry.

“Music meets everyone where they’re at,” Ms. Borgal says, adding that her role feels especially important during the pandemic. “I’m so grateful I can continue doing my job, and that I’m still here on the frontlines, bringing healing music to people.”