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April 20, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A moment of peace: Portola Valley musician brings soothing Celtic strains to patients, families and staff at Stanford Hospital A moment of peace: Portola Valley musician brings soothing Celtic strains to patients, families and staff at Stanford Hospital (April 20, 2005)

By Rebecca Wallace

Almanac Staff Writer

The harp is a gentle instrument. But somehow it overpowers the beeping machines, voices of nurses and doctors, and clacking of heels on tile floors in a Stanford Hospital ward.

In a room in the cardiac unit, Barbary Grant's fingers flutter over her Irish harp, playing a Celtic tune called "Soft, Mild Morning." Adolph Meyer, clad in a hospital gown, listens motionless, leaving his sandwich and carrot sticks on the tray. Pink blossoms fall from a tree outside as though choreographed.

"Beautiful," Mr. Meyer says when the song is over. "Beautiful, beautiful."

This is the third time the harpist has played for him in two days. When the hospital's five musicians, who mostly play harp and guitar, pay a call, patients often ask them to come back.

It's the most satisfying encore Ms. Grant can imagine.

A mother of three whose husband stays home with their young girls, Ms. Grant supports her family with music. She finds joy in her work as senior organist at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, and in her recording career -- she's put out four CDs of Celtic music and sings in Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx.

But there's something special about soothing burdens away in a terribly difficult place.

"People here are under a lot of stress," she says. "You don't really think about your vulnerability until you're sick or injured."

The harp also gives a moment of peace to harried hospital staff, and a respite to patients' families.

One day, Ms. Grant says, she was playing in a hallway when the mother of a sick girl came out of a hospital room to emotionally give thanks for the harp's calming effects.

"She said, 'It's the first time my daughter's slept in two days. I finally get to take a shower. Do you know what that means?'" Ms. Grant recalls.

Another time, the harp was a piece that clicked perfectly into the puzzle of patient care. A physical therapist was working with a woman with a wrist injury whose English was limited. Though the woman's daughter and granddaughter tried to help, the therapist couldn't get her to undulate her wrist more slowly.

"So I started playing a deep, slow lullaby," Ms. Grant recalls. Grandmother eased her tempo to match, the therapist smiled, and the movement was contagious. Soon three generations of women were twirling their wrists together, as though performing an elegant traditional dance.

Like a delivery of lilies or a lush hospital garden, music is not a cure-all, but it's key in creating a healing environment, says Terrigal Burn, a doctor and medical director of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. He's also a jazz pianist who plays bossa novas at Stanford every few months.

"There's evidence in a number of arenas that music can be helpful, certainly in the area of stress reduction," he says. "It may lower the requirement for pain medication."

Bringing in melodies is part of moving away from the traditional and less pleasant hospital milieu of "sterile walls, square corners," Dr. Burn says. These days, the goal is "more natural light, more soothing and healing colors, artwork that is positive," he says.

Touches of light and life are particularly important for Stanford's youngest patients. Her harp mounted on wheels, Ms. Grant spends a lot of time traveling the halls of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

She finds 7-month-old Christopher Collier in a waiting area with his mother, Elaine Polmer. Christopher, who has had two liver transplants, has a tiny feeding tube in his nose and huge brown eyes, which widen as Ms. Grant begins to play.

Others in the waiting room turn to watch. A woman scribbles her name on Ms. Grant's request list, asking her to come to a family member's room.

But the most loyal fan is little Christopher, who stares at Ms. Grant the whole time. He has seen her play many times, and it always has the same effect, his mother says.

"When she plays, he relaxes," she says. "We now know we have to get some harp music to take home."

To become a hospital musician at Stanford Hospital, people go through a rigorous selection and training process. For more information, e-mail program coordinator Marion Silverbear at

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