How Music Makes Us Human: a music therapist's night in the ER

by Sarah Pearson

I know exactly the moment that I decided to become a music therapist. That moment was not at an information session for a graduate music therapy program, or watching a YouTube video of hospice music therapy work, or shadowing a music therapist on her shift in a Long Term Care facility - though all of those experiences definitely contributed to my interest in the field. The moment I knew I wanted to be a music therapist was at a hospital, where I was the patient.

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 26 years old. Type 1 is a manageable disease, but it requires a lifetime of shots, blood checks, carb-counting, exercise management, and expensive medication and equipment to stay alive. On a typical day, I test my blood sugar 11 times and give myself 6 shots of insulin. While I run long distances, bike to work, and eat mostly local organic foods, I still have to calculate every morsel of food and calories burnt from exercise in order to maintain a stable blood sugar.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was working as a freelance writer and musician. Earlier that year, I had applied for a master's degree in music therapy; I wasn't sure if I actually wanted to go through the program, but the profession fascinated me and I thought it might be time to take my career to the next level. Days before I was diagnosed with Type 1, I got a letter in the mail accepting me into the program. All week I'd been preoccupied with thoughts about whether or not to quit my jobs, move provinces, and pay tuition in order to study music therapy. Needless to say, getting diagnosed with an incurable illness gave me something else to think about.

I was diagnosed in the spring of 2010. After experiencing many weeks of debilitating fatigue, dizziness, and weight loss, I had visited my family doctor. A quick blood test revealed that I had dangerously high blood sugar, and needed to get to an ER at once. It was there that I learned that I had diabetes, and would be on insulin shots for the rest of my life.

Being diagnosed with a life-changing illness can trigger a host of overwhelming emotions. For me, numbness was the strongest thing I felt. Lying in a hospital bed for two days, hooked up to machines and getting shots every hour, I tried to absorb information about my new disease, and what my life would look like from now on. Mostly, I just lay there, looking at trashy magazines my mom had brought me, waiting for the next nurse to come draw blood.

It was that first night in the hospital where something dramatically changed for me. I had just been woken up for my hourly blood-draw, and couldn't fall back asleep. The person next to me was experiencing some sort of pain crisis, and the ER was generally a busy, noisy place to have a good night's sleep. Out of habit, I began humming a song under my breath (I think it was Sarah Harmer's "Basement Apartment"). Suddenly, I felt the tide of tears build up inside of me. My whole body, it seemed, was finally experiencing emotion. It was as if the deeper breathing and bodily vibrations of just this simple humming was enough to release all the fear, sadness, grief, and shock of my new diagnosis. Singing, even so softly and for just a moment, made me feel human again.

It was too much. I knew instantly that I had to stop singing. The depth of emotion I was accessing was too big for this ER. If I opened that floodgate of feeling, there would be no one there to help me through it. And I could not go through this swampland of feelings alone.

That's when something crystalized for me: this hospital needs more music therapists, I thought to myself with a clarity uncommon for 2 am. It needs more music therapists so that people can safely fall apart when they need to.That is the moment I knew that I would become a music therapist. And it was no longer a question of whether I could afford to be a student for two years, or whether I wanted to change careers. It was that there was a need that I could help fill.

I often come back to that story when I think about my work as a music therapist. It helps me remember how powerful music can be in the most vulnerable moments of our lives. Music has the incredible power to connect us to our humanness, even in the most dehumanizing of spaces. And sometimes, those feelings can be overwhelming.

I am what we call in patient-centered-care circles "a hybrid": I am a health care professional anda patient. While I can be visiting with a client one moment in the waiting room of a chemo infusion site, the next day I can be treating a low blood sugar, waiting in my endocrinologist's office for my quarterly checkup, or fighting with an insurance company to cover my life-saving medication. While I am grateful that I do not live in a nursing home, or have to spend extended time as an in-patient, I also recognize how my daily experience as a patient helps me be a better therapist.

My story from the hospital reminds me of how dehumanizing disease can be. It reminds me of how easy it is to lose one's identity in a hospital bed. And it reminds me of what a powerful gift music can be in the most vulnerable moments of our lives. It makes me feel incredibly grateful for the career I am in.

Sarah Pearson is the new Program Development Coordinator for Room 217. She brings her experience as a music therapist and not-for-profit communications specialist to this new role.