My First Last

Let’s play a word association game. When I say “Music Therapy” you say….?


Let me guess: Death. No? 

Yeah, that probably wasn’t your first choice. Or your second … or even your 10th. 

I (Macayla) have written before about the privilege it has been working in hospice care, or with other patients who have passed away, but if someone had told me that this would be one of my passions in music therapy, I wouldn’t have believed them. 

Not until I met Joe*. 

I wasn’t even halfway through my hospital internship when one evening just before leaving work, we got a referral for a new patient. Normally a referral says something like “Music therapy for pain management” or depression or rehabilitation or some kind of meaningful assessment information that points us to a purpose, but this one said “Pt likes Judy Garland and Showtunes.” 

I’ll be honest, we kind of laughed it off.

But that evening, instead of working on one of the many assignments on my plate (daily logs, research reports, mid-term projects, or, you know, the three weeks worth of laundry piled in the corner) I decided I should put “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into a key I could play and sing comfortably, just in case. 

The next morning, I and my supervisor went to this patient’s floor for the requested music therapy assessment. The poor man was lying in his bed in agonizing pain–so much so that my supervisor left me to do the session alone while he went to find a nurse. As I began to play, his body relaxed. I cued deep breathing and gently guided the session to target pain management (you know, as well as I could at that point in my education), but the music did what the music does, and he appeared more relaxed and calm.

I asked him how he felt. Very slowly, he brought both hands to midline and gave three exhausted claps. 

Four hours later, he was gone, and he had used the very last of his strength to show me his appreciation.

I didn’t even know he was dying to be honest, but I learned a lot that day, and I will forever be grateful for the time he allowed me to spend with him and the lessons he taught me. 

I learned the absolute importance of preparing and equipping myself with the tools I will potentially need for a session in the future. 

I learned the value of music and connection in the final moments of someone’s life. 

I learned to treat each session as if it were my last with a patient.

I learned that I should have learned his name* and said it often. 

Music Therapy isn’t always a bucket of sunshine, but it is always intensely meaningful, whether that’s through a cacophony of of children moving and playing and learning, whether it’s through a teen experiencing a glimmer of hope in a dark time, whether it’s through a seemingly non-verbal individual saying their first word, a stroke patient walking successfully for the first time since an accident, or whether it’s in the final moments of someone’s life. 

Let’s remember to keep making music and making connections no matter what’s going on in and around us. Music is a privilege we should not take for granted.

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