BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Music can have a transformative, calming effect, and it is proving to be a source of peace for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients at UAB Hospital.
An innovative musical project between UAB health care staff and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra brings music and concerts to patients' rooms.
Since June, six ASO musicians playing instruments including flute, clarinet, violin, cello and double bass have performed as many as 68 live, private, solo and virtual recitals for patients with respiratory failure due to COVID-19, in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at UAB Hospital.
Staff use the secure UAB eMedicine platform and telehealth carts — the same platform used for family meetings for ICU patients — for the virtual concerts.
Anand Iyer, M.D., MSPH, a pulmonologist, intensivist and assistant professor in the UAB Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, and Maria Wilson, educational initiatives manager for the ASO, were classmates at The Donoho School in Anniston, Alabama. They reconnected on a mission to brainstorm sustainable ways ASO musicians could boost patient morale at UAB during the pandemic, and were inspired by a moving video in The New York Times.
ASO cellist Hellen Weberpal also saw the video and was similarly moved. The ASO Orchestra Committee broached the idea to Wilson, and the wheels were set in motion. Symphony musicians have felt a huge loss at not being able to play concerts for the Birmingham community, Wilson says.
“We know from research that music can positively impact the well-being of critically ill patients in the ICU, improving their anxiety, delirium and sedation medication needs,” Iyer said. “Beyond the potential palliative benefits for patients, the project has also had immense benefit for symphony musicians, who have an opportunity to perform again and touch lives in the ICU affected by COVID-19.”
ICU patients in the project have acute respiratory failure due to COVID-19 and are either sedated on the ventilator or awake and receiving high-flow nasal cannula oxygenation. Doctors say elevated anxiety symptoms and very high sedation needs for patients on the ventilator, plus prolonged ICU stays without family, contribute to significant delirium and the development of post-traumatic stress.
“It’s taking a major toll on patients, families and staff,” Iyer said.
MICU patients and staff have expressed appreciation of the recitals, and most report feeling more relaxed or calmer after the music listening sessions.
Each experience is a half hour long and done remotely through live video. The patients can see and hear the performers on screen; but because of HIPAA regulations, the performers do not hear or see the patients.
The performances feature “everything from Bach to Beatles,” said ASO principal flutist Lisa Wienhold.
“Music is a small respite for them,” Wienhold said. “The therapist has communicated with me about the patients' reactions. One patient had been upset and angry all day. He said, when I played, the patient relaxed, listened and smiled. That is what music is all about — communicating with others through music and bringing some sense of comfort in these very difficult times.”
This has been a labor of love for the volunteer musicians. They have spent a great deal of time sorting through their repertoire for pieces that fit the guidelines and worked with the music therapists to make small adjustments, so each experience is meaningful for the listener.
“Each has expressed such a joy and desire to provide these performances at a time when their own creative and professional outlet has been dimmed by COVID-19, and how they hope their performance brings healing and comfort to the patients,” Wilson said. “The generosity of both their time and talent is incredibly admirable.”
Playing for the patients “honestly gives me back more than I give,” Wienhold said. “I miss performing so much and have been so grateful for this opportunity to play for people. I hope this program is one that can continue beyond this COVID-19 pandemic.”