A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Music at the heart of Norton Cancer Center therapy helping patients find joy

Google “heartbeat sounds” and you’ll find an array of audio and video possibilities, ranging from a mere minute to a full twelve hours of lub-dub, lub-dub. There are soporific pulsations to pamper babies longing for the comfort of the womb and beats to becalm insomniacs.

The most unusual and heartening sounds are associated with music therapist Brian Schreck. In his current position at Norton Cancer Institute in Louisville, he works with terminally ill patients, transforming their heartbeats into unique musical compositions.

A clip from an in-progress documentary about the power of Schreck’s music therapy demonstrates its power to transform the experience of grief, and inform our approach to living.   According to him, “Music is a vehicle to help you get where you’re going, or want to go.”

Brian Schreck’s unique uses of music put the patient into the center of the experience because, the way he sees it, even after a few days in the hospital, both patient and family lose their identity. “Anything we can do to bring life back into the room,” he explains, “is important. Music is the way to do that.” 

One leukemia patient featured in the video created a song he called “Cancer Blues.” With Brian’s musical expertise and the patient’s heartbeat providing a steady rhythm, they crafted words around a popular melody. At first, the patient was not responsive until Brian picked up a guitar and played. That is when the floodgates opened.

“I had forgotten my love of music,” the patient explained, choking back tears.

About two minutes into the six-minute video clip, an old friend of mine, Angela Woodward, appeared on the screen. Angie, former executive director of Leadership Kentucky, died of breast cancer last year. I knew about her valiant struggle and aggressive chemotherapy but did not know of her involvement with the music therapy program at Norton. 

In the clip, she looked pale and worn, strands of her short blond hair poking out of a furry black hat. Her once vibrant voice was a raspy whisper as she spoke to Brian.

“How hard it is to leave life. I don’t know how to do it.” Angie shrugged and managed a half-hearted smile. “So we’re doing things that make us happy because you need to live until you die,” she concluded.

A later shot of Angie has her plucking a mandolin and smiling. Her dimples and laugh are a testimony to the change in her mood.

“You can still have joy, even when you’re experiencing grief,” Schreck declared. “You can still laugh out loud. You can still play your heart out.”

According to the U. S. National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine, music therapy is an established allied health profession, and music therapists are Board Certified upon completion of at least an undergraduate degree in music therapy or its equivalent, a clinical internship (averaging 1040 hours), and successfully passing the CBMT examination. In hospice and palliative care units, music therapists like Brian Schreck use a range of methods – songwriting, improvisation, guided imagery, singing, instrument playing and music therapy relaxation techniques to treat the many and varied needs of patients and families receiving care.

In Murray, the Murray-Calloway County Hospital’s Anna Mae Owen Residential Hospice House, as well as the long-term care facility, Spring Creek, offer personalized playlists for patients through the “Alive Inside” program. In November, National Hospice Month, remembering the important role of music in our lives is one way you can help loved ones live up to this important goal: Don’t count the days. Make the day count.  

A recent KET episode of Kentucky Life showcases Brian Schreck and his music therapy. See it online at www.ket.org. Information about the in-progress documentary about Schreck’s work is available at www.thebeatoftheheartmovie.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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