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Volunteer musicians offer unique brand of healing to Karmanos patients (and staff)

Enter Wertz Lobby on most Friday mornings between 10 a.m. and noon and you’ll hear the melodic sounds of guitarist Joel Palmer drifting over patients and staff and up through the atrium. Palmer is a professional musician whose blend of original songs, jazz standards, blues and folk can be heard at venues across the lower peninsula of Michigan, including his weekly gig at Karmanos.

Palmer is one of a handful of volunteer musicians who performs environmental music in the lobby and clinic waiting areas to promote a relaxing atmosphere for patients, their families and staff. JB Davies, a fingerstyle guitarist, has been playing at Karmanos for more than 12 years and was recruited by then music therapist Kristine Frias. Paul Nagel, also a guitarist, and Gail Barker, who plays the flute and sings, round out the current roster of volunteer musicians who perform in the public spaces at Karmanos.

Palmer began playing at Karmanos more than three years ago after two friends were diagnosed with cancer. One was living in California, so Palmer sent him a CD of his music. Later Palmer’s friend wrote on social media about how listening to Palmer’s music made him feel uplifted. When another friend being treated for cancer at Karmanos died, Palmer began to think about how he could use music to ease the cancer journey for more people. That’s when he reached out to Stacey Lincoln in the Social Work and Supportive Services Department.

“Thanks to Joel and our other musician volunteers, we have music in our lobby almost every Friday,” said Lincoln. “They really lift people’s spirits and our patients and staff miss them when they aren’t here.”

Music therapy has long been used as a form of healing, whether practiced informally by simply listening to music or by participating in a structured program such as the Jeffery Frank Wacks Music Therapy Program recently funded for the Weisberg Center. The first music therapy program was established as a curriculum at Michigan State University in 1944 but centuries before that Pythagoras observed that “rhythm subsists within the mind, and the mind exerts a powerful influence over the health of the body.”

While researching his book, “Music and Cancer: A Prescription for Healing,” Nimesh P. Nagarsheth, M.D., associate director of Gynecologic Oncology, director of Music and the Arts in Medicine, and assistant professor, OB/GYN and Reproductive Science at Mt. Sinai Hospital, found that 270 academic papers have been written focusing on music and cancer: 

“Within this body of work is scientific data suggesting that music triggers physiologic responses that: 1) reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and pace of breathing; 2) occupy the neurotransmitters that are used to transmit pain messages to the brain and thereby decrease the perception of pain; 3) diminish levels of stress, fear, and anxiety; and 4) increase feelings of self-worth and ease symptoms of depression. For cancer patients in particular, music therapy has been shown to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, enhance relaxation, diminish pain, and help patients and their families adjust to life with cancer.”

Back in Wertz Lobby, the impact Palmer and his music has on patients and staff passing by is remarkable. Anxious patients relax, tap a foot, smile and nod as they pass by. Na’Keisha Conn, a patient services representative, pauses for a minute to dance to a little “Respect” on her way back from lunch. A patient, who lost much of his voice to throat cancer, stops and sings along. Palmer says the patient is a regular visitor.

“Every time I play here, I’m reminded why I say no to other gigs so I can be here every Friday,” says Palmer. “I think when you put your passion in the service of others, your passion becomes compassion.”

Both Davies and Palmer play on the inpatient floors once a month as well as in the public spaces. A staff member escorts them up and finds out which patients feel up to a personalized concert right in their room. Palmer chats with patients for a bit first, finds out how they’re feeling and what kind of music they like and then adjusts his songs to their mood. He plays for as long as they seem to want him to. He says it feels like sacred ground.

On behalf of everyone who has found a little comfort in the music of these musician volunteers, Karmanos would like to say a heartfelt thank you.

© 2014 Karmanos Cancer Institute Pencil
The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center is accredited by The Joint Commission.
If members of the public have any quality-of-care or safety concerns, they may notify The Joint Commission at 630-792-5800.