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Harpist Brings Soothing Sounds to Hospital

By Julia Cruz
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent

Every hospital is a busy place filled with sound - the shrill wail of an ambulance siren, the constant beep of heart monitors, the shuffle of staff members hard at work, patients on their way to appointments and anxious family members visiting their ailing loved ones.

But walk the halls of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and you will also hear a different, unexpected sound - a beautiful, lilting melody floating through the air as Nancy Kleiman's graceful fingers gently pluck the strings of her harp. A patient sits nearby in a wheelchair, eyes closed, peacefully smiling as he takes in the soothing music. A nurse takes a moment during her busy day to stop, catch her breath and enjoy the sweet sounds.

"The harp in a hospital setting is a good marriage because it brings the soothing properties to a place where there is a lot of anxiety," says Kleiman. "There are many people who after a day of appointments and diagnoses and waiting have said to me, 'When I heard your harp, everything was okay.'"

Nancy is one of two harpists employed by BIDMC. Their music has the power not just to connect but to transport people away from the stress and concern that often comes with illness - at least for a few moments. As a former nun with a Masters in Jewish studies, Nancy considers her music a sort of ministry.

"The harp is mentioned 54 times in the Bible. I think it connects with people in a spiritual way," notes Kleiman.

Music is in Nancy's DNA. Both her father and grandfather played trumpet and all of her mother's 12 siblings were instrumentalists. She learned the trumpet, French horn, violin and guitar and taught music in schools and at summer camps. When her own music teacher was diagnosed with cancer, a group of harpists held a musical vigil for him. The harp's ethereal sounds inspired Nancy to a new calling.

"I knew I had found the instrument that combines my music and spirituality," she recalls.

She taught herself to play the harp and began volunteering for the GentleMUSES program at Mass General when Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CEO Paul Levy, a family friend, approached her about bringing her music to BIDMC. An anonymous grant followed by support from the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation funded her efforts.

Nancy started playing her 30-string maple lever harp twice a week and the response was overwhelming. She began receiving several requests to perform in different departments throughout the hospital. Family members would stop and ask her to play for loved ones in their final moments of life.

"I could be on the elevator and a family member may say, 'My mother's dying on the 12th floor' and I'll say 'I'm right behind you,'" says Kleiman. "We have a special job - to create a life bridge to help them make the transition. We're musical midwives."

But it's not only patients and their families who benefit from Nancy's beautiful music. BIDMC staff are among her biggest fans.

"Music brings an incredible sense of calm to the hospital," notes BIDMC Director of Social Work Barbara Sarnoff Lee. "It allows people to pause in their otherwise hurried and busy days. Many employees have emailed me to say, 'Thank you! This is the best part of my day.'"

Nancy keeps a journal of her many musical experiences at the hospital - an emotional testament to the power of music. The patient who said the beautiful music brought a smile to her face for the first time in weeks. Another who admitted it allowed her to cry for the first time since her husband's death. The time she played at the bedside wedding of a young bride dying from cancer.

"People don't realize how many patients' lives she touches. She's like this silent member of the health care team," says Sarnoff Lee.

"I'm doing exactly what I love. I'm using my unique gifts every single day to serve a community," Kleiman says. "I work for God - the benefits are out of this world."

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2009