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Music is My Superpower

January 29, 2015

Music has always been part of my life.  I started playing the viola when I was six.  My brother, the cello, my sister, the viola… and together we were “The Barry Trio.”  I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1990 with a BFA in Viola Performance, but I knew deep down inside that there was something else for me.

I was introduced to music by my parents, but I came to know its power through my daughter.  In 2000, my daughter Toireasa was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma Stage 4 at the age of 3.  Her one request as we were driving from the doctor’s office to the hospital was to stop by home and pick up the video of the musical CATS.  The music from that show gave her strength and hope.  I played it every day for her. We went through 10 VHS tapes during the two years she fought because we were playing it 24 hours 7 days a week.  And then in 2002, she lost her battle with cancer, and I found a new purpose for my life – nursing.

Music-is-My-SuperpowerI started nursing school in 2004 and graduated from the Drexel Accelerated Career Entry Program in September 2006.  My nickname during nursing school became “Super Nurse”.   And I read all the books about how nurses have “super powers” of perception and caring.  When I actually got my license, the nurses with whom I had worked as a Nurse Extern made me a cape out of an isolation gown and a white hat out of paper, with a name tag that said “Super Nurse.”  But I never knew or understood that I did have a super power until the spring of 2007 when I met “P.”

I had only been a nurse for 6 -7 months when I was assigned to him. Fresh off orientation, I was given a young man who had suffered a severe head trauma after an assault.  I was informed by the other nurses and doctors that he most likely would always be in a semi-vegetative state, and if he does ever come back, he will never be the same.  I looked around his room and saw photos of his family and an iPod on the table next to him.  Then his parents walked through the door.

I introduced myself to them as his nurse for the day, and we started talking.  I learned that he was here visiting from another city for his brother’s wedding, had gotten separated from the group, and was found at the bottom of a stairway outside a club. I learned he was a child of missionaries who had travelled the world helping others.  I learned that he was a musician – specifically a Jazz Upright Bass player who taught music to inner city kids in Harlem, among other things.

As his mother and father were telling me his story, I remembered the iPod sitting on the bed table.  I asked them about it, and they told me that it was full of all his favorite music.  I asked if I could look, and what I saw blew me away – John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck – all my favorites too.  I asked if we could keep this with him and keep it running 24/7, because I had an idea.

The idea wasn’t completely formed, but somehow I knew that music was the key, and at least it would make him, hopefully, more comfortable.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months.  “P”s recovery was very little.  He battled infections and difficulties that strained even the most seasoned nurses on our unit.  Back and forth he went from our floor to the ICU over that time, and his parents were told to consider looking for a long term care facility, as there was no change in his condition and no hope that anyone saw.

Then one day upon his return to our unit, I saw him using the buttons on the bed.  Up and down went the head of the bed and he stared at it... concentrating… understanding.  Purposeful movements! I couldn’t believe it.  I ran into the room and he looked up at me, smiled and then nothing, no recognition, just a blank stare and then laid down and went to sleep.  But I knew at that moment what I needed… no, what he needed, and I immediately called his mom. 

I remember that conversation like it was yesterday – “Does anyone of the family have an electric keyboard they can bring in? Because if you don’t… I’ll go get one!” The very next day, the keyboard was there and my work began.

For the next week I worked constantly with him, coming in on my days off, just to have him put his fingers on the keyboard – helped him remember how to place his hands on it – helped him remember the sound of a simple C Major scale.  And one day, as I put the keyboard on the table in front of him and placed his hands on the keyboard, he started playing the scale by himself.  Up and down the keys his fingers travelled. Slowly but surely and purposefully he played – each note, so precious.  I called his parents and told them the news.

The following week, I brought my viola in and played with him – dancing around the room while he played scales, arpeggios, and some simple jazz riffs.

I called the Occupational Therapist and told her that something amazing was happening, and she needed to see him, that a reevaluation was needed.  She came to the room in disbelief as I sat “P” up on the side of the bed and placed the keyboard in front of him.  He started playing random notes with no design or purpose.  She looked at me and said “this isn’t anything; you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.”  So, I asked him to play me a scale.  He played it perfectly.  I asked him to play an arpeggio.  Again – perfect!  The look on the therapist’s face was priceless – she smiled! Then he did something amazing – he started playing an old Dave Brubeck tune and I started crying.

The therapist immediately called a meeting with his parents and the phones started ringing from Philadelphia to NYC.  Urgently we tried to find someplace – any place – that would take him for rehab instead of long term nursing care.

I was off for a couple days and couldn’t make it in for a visit.  The morning I returned to work, “P” was on a stretcher in the hallway and the medics were there. He had been accepted into a rehab facility in NYC and he was finally leaving our hospital. When he saw me arrive on the unit, he raised his hands wildly and the medics stopped.  In his hand was a note pad and a pen, and he wrote!  YES! In those two days I was off, he remembered how to write!  Two simple words that I will carry with me forever – THANK YOU.

Six months after he left us, “P” walked out of rehab on his own two feet.  One year later, he returned to Philly to run in the Philadelphia Marathon.  I was there when he crossed the finish line.  He didn’t remember me, but knew of me from what his parents had told him – that I was the nurse who brought him back to life through music.

I still keep in touch with him and his family.  We call each other, send messages through Facebook, and email on birthdays and holidays. He has recently completed his Masters in Classical Bass and is playing with a group that tours up and down the East Coast.

I have worked with several patients over the years bringing music into my nursing.  I’ve played for my coworkers on St. Patrick’s Day and Easter in the Emergency Department.  My nickname has changed from “Super Nurse” to “Hospital Mom.”  But deep down inside, I know I’ve finally found my super power… it’s my music.

Each and every nurse in this amazing profession brings something unique with us to the job.  Whether it is the ability to teach – art – music – writing – caring – we all bring something and that is our super power.  Nurses are the front line of the health profession. We see patients at their worst and rarely see them at their best.  What we have to remember is that what we do today affects them tomorrow and in the years to come, so we better make it count.

Music is my super power.  What’s yours?

by Julia Barry Elsisy, BFA, BSN, RN, BCEN ‘06