A young woman wearing blue plastic gloves and carrying a silver flute walks into the hospital room of a semi-comatose middle-aged woman. “Hi,” the young woman says. “It’s Rose. I’m here to play my flute for you again if you’d like. Does that sound good?”
The semiconscious woman—we’ll call her Diane—doesn’t open her eyes, but she does nod.
The soft notes slice through the irritating beeping and humming of hospital machines and ringing of telephones in the hallway. A sense of calm settles in, not just in Diane’s room but all around it. People passing by slow down. Some even stop to listen for a moment. One doctor goes out of her way to thank Rose. “This is beautiful,” the doctor says. “Just beautiful.”
Diane isn’t the only patient Rose O’Toole has visited today at Carolinas Specialty Hospital. O’Toole played guitar and sang for two others—a semi-comatose man who woke up enough to try to sing along and flirt with her and another man who loved him some country tunes. She carries with her a guitar and a large, blue bag full of instruments, including two small drums, rhythm sticks, shakers, and a tambourine.
O’Toole improvises as she plays, but what she chooses to play is not random. She uses her training in human physiology—not unlike what nurses learn—to choose music that helps Diane. Hospitals are tough places to sleep, and a person in a semi-coma isn’t necessarily sleeping. To recover, Diane’s body and mind both need rest.
As O’Toole plays, Diane’s heart rate drops from the 80s to around 70, and she breathes slower and deeper, indicating she’s likely fallen asleep.
Best anthropologists can tell, humans have been making music for at least 30,000 years. Plato wrote about music giving the universe a soul and everything life. We use it today as a soundtrack for anything we want, and its power and influence in our culture go without saying. But O’Toole isn’t here just to entertain or provide nice background noise. She is a student being supervised by clinical coordinator Meg Johnson from Queens University’s music therapy program.
Music therapy doesn’t always work, and sometimes things can even go wrong, as O’Toole will experience in a moment with Diane. But it works often enough to take seriously, and that’s why O’Toole is here. She believes what many others have come to believe—music can heal us.