Mercy Health's in harmony with professional, amateur musicians

November 15, 2014

Walk into a Mercy Health — Cincinnati hospital and chances are good that a volunteer pianist will be entertaining in the lobby. On special occasions, players from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra perform at Mercy facilities as part of a partnership with the health system; and at other times, the Mercy Health hospitals stream the orchestra's concerts into patients' rooms over the hospitals' closed-circuit television networks.

Cellist with physician
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra cellist Alan Rafferty, left, and Dr. Craig Willis, a Mercy Health physician and orthopedic specialist, present a seminar on maintaining hand and wrist health.

Patients heal with time, and pleasant distractions like musical performances help time pass more quickly, says Dr. Stephen Feagins, vice president of medical affairs for Mercy Health–Anderson Hospital, in Cincinnati. A self-described lapsed amateur musician himself, Feagins used to play the guitar, the trombone, the piano and the drums.

"I'm not very good at it," he says of his music making. But, when it comes to the stress-busting benefits of playing music, virtuosity may not be as important as enthusiasm. "Relaxation occurs when you are actively engaged" in an artistic endeavor such as recreational music making or even molding clay into a pot, Feagins said. Some studies suggest that playing music or creating art may improve the body's infection-fighting ability.

Dr. Stephen Feagins
Dr. Stephen Feagins

Feagins champions recreational music making as a member of the Cincinnati Music & Wellness Coalition. That nonprofit describes itself as a community-wide recreational music-making and wellness organization. Physicians, musicians, music therapists and philanthropists comprise and contribute to the coalition's programming, which is offered in dozens of health facilities in the Cincinnati area. The coalition engages seniors, the developmentally disabled, brain-injured children, at-risk youth and people recovering from heart disease and from substance abuse in its music-making programs that use drums or piano synthesizing keyboards.

HealthRHYTHMS, a lively group drumming program promoted by the coalition, is the only coalition program offered at a Mercy Health facility. Dementia patients residing at Cincinnati's Mercy Health – West Park get a physical workout as they pound out feelings they may no longer be able to put into words.

Mercy Health–Cincinnati was a sponsor of the coalition's third annual Music and Medicine Conference held in Cincinnati in September. Feagins, an internal medicine and sports medicine specialist who works with high school athletes, presented preliminary findings of his investigation on the effect of music on patients recovering from concussions. Research has shown that concussion patients benefit from cognitive rest — no reading or schoolwork is advised during the early days of recovery. But Feagins hypothesized that "it might be possible that music would reduce the time to resolution of symptoms and neurological deficiencies" that accompany concussions.

"That was not the case," Feagins said. "However, the ability to listen to music appears to be an indicator of a resolution of symptoms."

During the session at the conference, Feagins and husband and wife Cincinnati symphony performers, violinist Rebecca Kruger Fryxell and violist Steve Fryxell spoke about the parallels between the performance preparations of high-caliber athletes and professional musicians. For example, both athlete and musician use visualization to focus their minds before a game or performance. Neither can expect to excel if they forego daily practice. Both musicians and athletes talk about 'getting to the zone' after hours of practice every day. And both groups do warm-up exercises, which may include either musical scales or deep knee lunges, keeping a meticulous focus on technique. But anything a person does at that intensity brings the potential for injuries, Feagins said, so musicians and athletes must learn how to use their bodies to minimize injury risk.

Musicians and physician
Mercy Health cardiologist Dr. Tim Brennan teams with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra violinist Rebecca Kruger Fryxell and violist Steve Fryxell in his lectures on the human heart. The musicians mimic heart rhythms on their strings as part of their performance.

Mercy Health has taken the doctor-symphony musician seminars out to the community in recent years. Feagins has given presentations with a violist and athlete to illustrate postures that safeguard against torn rotator cuffs and back issues.

The Fryxells teamed up with Mercy Health cardiologist Dr. Tim Brennan this year in community health sessions. They mimicked heart rhythms on the strings to illustrate Brennan's lecture on the heart. The sessions always include musical performances.

"The draw is to hear professional musicians, and you might actually learn something about health," Feagins joked.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.