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The music of our lives

Toronto, December 19, 2016

By Evelyne Jhung

Catherine Manning sings and plays the guitar
Catherine Manning sings and plays the guitar for a patient in the Palliative Care Unit. (Photo by Katherine Cooper)

When Michelle R. ran out of treatment options for her cancer and was moved to the Palliative Care Unit, music became increasingly important to her.

“She wanted her 11-year-old son to remember the music that was meaningful to them,” said Catherine Manning, a music therapist in Palliative Care. “They especially liked gospel songs and a favourite was ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore.’ I helped create a CD of her singing favourite songs of faith for him and also recorded her reading a letter she wrote for her son. I believe it comforted her in the end knowing he would have this after she died.”

Manning has been providing music therapy at St. Michael’s since 2003. After completing a degree in psychology, she wanted to find a way of incorporating her lifelong love of music, so she pursued a music therapy degree.

“My first clinical placement was in palliative care,” said Manning. “I was fearful and drawn to it at the same time, which made me feel I was on the right track. I had some profound early experiences that sealed the deal for me.”

The type of music therapy she provides depends on the patient’s clinical state as well as life and family history. For some, she plays the piano, guitar or harp and/or sings as a means of supporting relaxation or symptom control.

For other patients, she finds the music of their “life history”: a soothing lullaby from childhood; music from their courtship for elderly couples married for many years; or popular songs from a patient’s youth that conjure up memories of healthier times or perhaps things to be resolved.

   
Did you know?
Catherine Manning is the 2016 recipient of the Values in Action Award for Social Responsibility. Watch her video

“A song can stir up many emotions, but it’s a safe place because the music acts as a container for the full range of our feelings,” said Manning. “Through observing emotional response, I then move into the opportunity to explore what the music evokes, and I help them come to terms with the emotions of that moment. For families, music therapy provides a place for grieving before the end.”

Manning participates in Palliative Care daily rounds every Tuesday and Thursday mornings and will get referrals from other staff at that time. Sometimes families in nearby rooms will hear her play and ask for music therapy for their loved one.

“A woman whose mother died two years ago on our unit was back again recently, this time with her father. He was close to death when he arrived. When they settled after a difficult night in the ED, she mentioned that her father loved ‘Blue Velvet,’ and sang it around the house all the time. I took five minutes to learn the song, sang it along with some other Elvis favourites, and improvised gently with guitar and voice as he slipped away. I printed a small copy of the lyrics for the patient’s daughter to carry in her wallet as a gentle reminder of his last moments. The family told me it couldn’t have been better – he died the way he lived, with the music of his life.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.