Plenty of pluck and lots of compassion
Two or three times a year, harp player Verlene Schermer's pager gets her immediate attention.
"If it's a call from the chaplain's office or from a social worker, an end-of-life decision may have been made," she said. "And I have to get to a patient's room as soon as I can."
Schermer will play her double-string harp while family members who have gathered in the room approach the patient's bed and say their goodbyes. "The music helps to fill the silence and makes it easier for them to speak," she said. "And it often helps people who have been holding back tears to cry. It helps people release that."
Like Schermer, Barbary Grant has been plying the 36 strings of her Irish harp at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital for the past five years. "The adjective we most often hear is 'soothing,'" Grant said. "I could break my fingers playing Irish jigs, and people would still find it soothing because it's a harp."
As she has played in intensive care units, patient rooms, maternity wards and infusion centers, Grant said she has heard all the "harp questions." Including, "Are your wings in your backpack?"
"She gets the 'angel questions' because she wears dresses," said Schermer as she pushed her cherry-wood harp, securely tethered to a wheeled board, down a hospital corridor. "And I get questions like, 'Is that yours?' Or, 'Do you play that?'"
The two harpists met about 10 years ago at Harpers Hall, a South Bay music group. They are part of a team of six musicians—including harpists Pamela Bowen and Barbra Telynor, and guitarists Jeff Buenz and Jim Nichols—who circulate through the hospitals and respond to calls to play in patient rooms. They provide music at no cost, thanks to generous donors.
"An in-room visit can be as short as 10 minutes…," Grant began. "…if a patient falls asleep," Schermer finished.
"Or we may play for an hour, if the connection is really going," Grant added. "Especially if a patient's enjoying the interaction with someone who's not there to poke him with needles."
The women said their work is about music as a gift, not as therapy. They're always ready to pluck a Celtic, pop, classical or bluegrass tune—whatever is requested. "I have a half-dozen favorites at the ready when I walk into a room," Grant added. "My signature piece? Bach's Prelude in C, because it's intellectually stimulating, shows off my harp levers and opens up a dialog about how my harp is different from others."
Schermer said patients enjoy the pop songs in her repertoire, including What A Wonderful World, Wind Beneath My Wings and Stand By Me. When someone requests a classical piece, she plays Jupiter's Theme from The Planets and Ode to Joy. And she recognizes that boredom sometimes drives the choices. "A patient has been watching TV and has read every magazine there is, and just wants something to liven up the room, to brighten it up."
Patients typically contact Guest Services to ask for a musician to play in their rooms, or they can dial 8-3333 from within the hospital. Sometimes the referrals come from the house staff. "A nurse will say, 'My patient's having a really bad day,' and she'll call for music," Schermer said. "We still knock on the door and ask the patient. We can't presume and just start playing."
Schermer recalled the afternoon she was playing in the room of a patient who was about to have the dressing changed on his amputated leg.
"They didn't ask me to leave, so I kept going, and at one point I glanced up from my harp and thought, 'Oh, that's what it looks like,'" she said. "I was surprised by how little it affected me, but I think it's because I know I'm there to serve a purpose."
At the same time, playing for long-term patients—say, those who are spending a month in the bone marrow transplant unit—can spark unexpected exchanges. "Someone I played for recently said, 'You know, I'm only here for a while, but I've become so close to some of the staff,'" Schermer said. "She apprciated that she could have that deep connection, even for a short time."