After 12 days in the hospital, Hershey resident Anita Heckert could tell her optimism was waning, so when her occupational therapist suggested music therapy, she was game.
“To have someone come and spend time with me that didn’t involve needles, drawing blood or an MRI was very appealing,” said Heckert who was in Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for complications due to colon cancer.
As Jan Stouffer, board-certified music therapist with the Music Therapy Program at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, quietly played guitar, she gave Heckert an ocean drum to play.
Hundreds of small ball bearings in the drum combined to sound like gentle waves at low tide coming across the sand—and transported Heckert back to a happy day years ago when she and her sister, each with their small sons, visited Assateague Island and frolicked on the beach with six wild ponies splashing nearby.
As Stouffer encouraged her to remember the strong and faithful mother she had been in that moment, she reminded her, “That person still exists—you are that person.” The encounter served as a turning point in Heckert’s emotional outlook.
“I knew I was profoundly sad before, and I knew I felt very, very different after music therapy,” Heckert said. “I hadn’t been feeling strong at all, but seemingly effortlessly, Jan gave that gift back to me. I can go back to that very pleasant feeling Jan brought to me, and I can now say that I will get through this.”
By manipulating the elements of a song, music therapists help control a patient’s pain and anxiety, ease adjustment to the hospital setting and promote rehabilitation, Stouffer said.
“Our bodies are rhythmic beings,” she said. “Our heart beats and blood flow are rhythmic, and when we are exposed to music with rhythm, our bodies want to become synchronized with the rhythms in our environment.”
Working under therapy services, the music therapists respond to physician consults, creating an individualized treatment plan to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs.
“I have worked with unresponsive patients on a ventilator, and they don’t open their eyes and can’t tell me if the music is helping, but it has been the case repeatedly that I play sedative music, and their respiratory rate calms even further,” Stouffer said.
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