Bedside tunes: Boise hospitals offer music therapy

While she sat in a chair for three hours, getting a transfusion to fight uterine cancer, Gail Driskill closed her eyes as a man strummed a guitar next to her.

“Play anything,” the Boise woman would tell him. And he’d start with a classic John Denver tune or an improvised melody. As her face started to relax, he would bring down the tempo. As he brought down the tempo, her breathing would slow.

That man, Bill Dluhosh, is one of a few local providers of a different kind of health care.

Dluhosh is a board-certified music therapist, hired last year by Saint Alphonsus Health System to offer music therapy to adult cancer patients. The program is funded by a Livestrong grant, and Dluhosh works about 10 hours a week.

But he hopes the hospital will open music therapy to other wings of the hospital, with two music therapists and an intern.

“I already have nurses asking, ‘Could you — oh, wait, they’re not oncology (patients),’ ” he said.

There are few music therapists in the Treasure Valley. Dluhosh moved to Boise from the Seattle area to work for Saint Alphonsus. His colleague, Mary Brieschke, moved to Boise from Florida to work for St. Luke’s Health System as a part-time music therapist in its Children’s Hospital.

Idaho hospitals are investing more in offering music therapy to patients, and local music therapists work with patients outside of the hospital as well.

The purpose isn’t just to have fun singalongs. Music therapy is an evidence-based complement to traditional Western medicine.

St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus are not yet billing health insurance for the services. But the Idaho Legislature this year gave music therapy an official blessing, saying the practice is “is a valid and important therapeutic health care service for Idahoans.”

Brieschke started at St. Luke’s in November. The program has been at St. Luke’s for almost four years, starting as a grant program.

“Over the past few years, (Mountain States Tumor Institute) and St. Luke’s have seen the benefits” of hiring full-time therapists, she said.

Brieschke sees up to 20 patients per week, for 30 minutes on average. If a patient comes in for two hours of chemotherapy, Brieschke might spend 15 minutes or a half-hour playing songs. Sometimes she helps older children document their life-changing journey through cancer by writing songs about what they’re feeling. At the end, she gives them a finished CD.

“One of the biggest goals is to make the whole experience less traumatic ... which is important when they’re coming in once a week to get medicine that doesn’t make them feel well,” she said. “One of the things we try to do is soften the environment, make it less scary and create a supportive and positive environment for them to get the treatment they need.”

The music can help distract children from nausea or calm anxious patients.

Dluhosh said he takes requests — a patient in Nampa once asked for “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. He said the ability to hear a favorite song played live, on demand, gives patients a sense of control in a confusing and often powerless time in their lives.

For strokes or dementia, a familiar “Mairzy Doats” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” can prompt a nonverbal patient to start singing, Dluhosh said.

A strumming ukelele or a plinking xylophone can help an infant reach developmental milestones or bolster a 10-year-old’s spirits when he can’t see his friends, Brieschke said.

Driskill said Dluhosh and his guitar were a respite from the long cancer treatments she endured.

“I just close my eyes and let it take me away, kind of like Calgon,” she said.

Dluhosh explained that music stimulates the feel-good chemicals — serotonin, endorphins and dopamine — that can help with pain management or keep a patient’s mind off an injection or a biopsy.

Driskill’s husband, Paul Messersmith, got a taste of Dluhosh’s music therapy when he became a patient at Saint Al’s. He needed open-heart surgery and was recovering alongside his wife.

“It was just relaxing,” Messersmith said. The music broke up the days of lying in a bed, with “nurses poking you, people coming in and making you walk around,” he said.