VA Maryland Health Care System
Musicians Brighten Veterans’ Hospital Stay
By day, Tim Scully works in the State’s Public Defender’s office, representing those who find themselves entangled in the justice system without the means for an attorney. By night, however, he brings the healing power of music once a month to the Veteran inpatients at the Baltimore VA Medical Center by playing the hot hits from the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and present day.
"My goal is to visit with the Veterans and to get them to sing along. I take requests and if anyone asks for a favorite song, I’ll try to play it," says Scully, who sometimes comes with his wife or famous bluesmen like Guy Davis, Scott Ainslie, and other professional musicians who might be performing in Washington, D.C.
"It’s really not about the private concerts so much as it is about the effect of the music on the patients," said Scully, who has been volunteering as a musician in this capacity at the Baltimore VA Medical Center for nearly four years. "I once sang a tune called 'Dust my Broom,’ a little blues tune first sang by Robert Johnson in the 1930s. We were in this room where one of the patients appeared miserable, obviously in pain, and not wanting much to interact. I asked if we could play for him, and he nodded. I didn’t know 'Dust my Broom’ was his favorite tune. It was just something I played, and by the time we were leaving that room, this patient looked like a whole new man," Scully said.
Although Scully visits and performs for Veteran inpatients as part of his individual effort to serve the community, he’s not alone. Musicians On Call, a non-profit organization, has partnered with the VA Maryland Health Care System to bring local and famous professional musicians to the bedsides of Veteran inpatients at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
"The music provided by the volunteers from the Musicians On Call really helps our Veteran patients enjoy a break from their hospital care," said Susan Kern, program manager for Voluntary Service at the VA Maryland Health Care System. "Volunteers play various instruments and go room to room to bring a little fun and entertainment to our hospitalized Veterans. We are so grateful to Musicians On Call for supporting the needs of our Veteran patients."
Research has found that the benefits of music can be measured immediately, and that simply listening to favorite songs can lower heart rates, reduce blood pressure and reduce anxiety and depression, which can help in creating a positive mood. Studies also suggest that music can reduce symptoms of insomnia and change brain waves, among other outcomes.
"In the past, musical groups came and went sporadically throughout the year. A renaissance has occurred at the Baltimore VA Medical Center thanks to our weekly musician visits that include Tim Scully and Musicians On Call," said Vivian Newstate, a program specialist in the VA Maryland Health Care System’s Voluntary Service office. "Now, thanks to Musicians On Call and Tim Scully, more high profile artists are coming to visit, and it’s a treat for our patients and their family members to have their own private concerts," said Newstate who sets up the musicians’ visits.
"I know based on their reactions that our Veterans are truly touched by these musicians and our volunteers who accompany them. The patients’ earnest reactions, while positive and complimentary, can also be hilarious. As an example, following a performance in our Oncology Clinic by Matisyahu’s, [an American reggae rapper and alternative rock musician who scored a Top 40 hit in 2005] one of the Veteran patients remarked to the artist, 'you know, you’re pretty good- I hope you make it someday." Newstate said. "Often before the musician and guide have left the room, the patient is on the phone to tell a loved one that someone came to visit and played music just for them! I appreciate the musicians and volunteers who come to share their talents to brighten the spirits of our hospitalized Veterans."
Trina Coleman, a local professional musician who plays piano, ukulele and flute is a volunteer with Musicians On Call and visits the Baltimore VA Medical Center once a month, performing for several hours at patients’ bedsides. "It’s a scary thing to be sick and away from home," Coleman said. "When I play for patients at the VA, I play the uke [ukulele]."Coleman appreciates the "amazing people," she meets while volunteering as a musician. "The patients themselves can be so disarmingly fun," she adds, noting that her favorite moment came when a patient who could barely speak or move started tapping his foot beneath the blanket and knocking his knuckles on the end of the bed to the beat of her rendition of the tune, "Stand by Me."
"That’s why I’m there. To bring light into dark places, hope into the sorrowful eyes. Unlike playing a noisy bar or even a huge show at a local venue or festival, this is real, raw and true. It can often be more rewarding," she said.
Randy Wight, an advisory board member of Musicians On Call and an active duty service member with the U.S. Army Field Band, echoes that sentiment. Wight, who sang "God Bless America" at the opening game of the American League Division Series for the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in September, connected the non-profit organization to the VA Maryland Health Care System’s Voluntary Service Office in an effort to spread the healing power of music to Veteran inpatients. "We have a saying at Musicians On Call—'the healing power of music.’ On the surface, the music has a healing effect on the patients, but it also heals the staff, the doctors and nurses, family, friends and loved ones, and even the musicians themselves."
What inspired Wight to connect the organization to the VA Maryland Health Care System took place when he was performing professionally as the lead vocalist with the Army’s premier touring rock band, aptly named "The Volunteers." After a performance at a Veterans Home, one of the more senior residents signaled for his attention. Wight made his way to the World War II Veteran in the back of the room, and the man handed him a wrinkled and discolored paper with a poem had written. His nurse explained that the Veteran had written the poem for his wife when he was a prisoner of war during WWII and he wanted Wight to sing the poem. "I tried with all my might to put his words to melody, and as the room became still, I knew we had touched each other’s lives. That was the event that led me to Musicians On Call, for in that moment of healing power I realized there are many poems left to sing," Wight said.
In addition to local professional musicians volunteering with Musicians On Call, nationally-known musicians also volunteer and visit the Baltimore VA Medical Center when they are performing in Baltimore or Washington, D.C. Most recently, reggae rapper Matisyahu and country singer Joe Nichols performed mini bedside concerts for Veteran inpatients at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. Musicians On Call always pairs all of their musician volunteers with volunteer guides who help the musicians navigate throughout the medical center.
Thordis Boron, a professional actress and singer from Germany now living at Fort Meade with her active-duty U.S. Army musician husband (a permanent performer in the U.S. Army Field Band’s touring rock band,) serves as a volunteer guide for Musicians On Call. "The guide is the connection between the patient, the musician, the medical center, and the organization. As a volunteer guide for Musicians On Call, I escort musicians on their rounds from bed to bed at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, introducing them to the staff and the patients and making sure that everyone is feeling as comfortable as possible," she said.
"I’m lucky to experience so many wonderful moments. Many patients tell us that our visit was the 'best thing that happened’ to them in a while. It feels amazing to experience all the different signs of appreciation they show, and I’m thankful I can help in distracting them from their fears, their pain, and even their boredom of a daily hospital routine," Boron said.
Musicians On Call is new to Baltimore, and plans are afoot to extend the organization’s program to other facilities within the VA Maryland Health Care System, as well as to other area hospitals. Founded in 1999, with the mission of bringing live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in health care facilities, Musicians On Call volunteers have now played for nearly half a million people nationwide. Musicians On Call continues its mission through room-to-room hospital performances by local musicians and national celebrities. Professional musicians who spend their volunteer time playing for Veteran inpatients at the Baltimore VA Medical Center all report that they leave with much more than they give. "It’s almost as if you can watch the songs wash over the Veteran patients and send them to another time and place. There’s nothing like it," Coleman said.
To volunteer at the VA Maryland Health Care System, you can obtain an application online at http://www.maryland.va.gov/giving/volunteer001.asp#opportunities or you can call a Voluntary Service Office at one of the following numbers:
- Baltimore VA Medical Center Voluntary Service (410) 605-7100;
- Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center Voluntary Service (410) 605-7000, ext. 5877;
- Perry Point VA Medical Center Voluntary Service: (410) 642-1038.
To learn more about Musicians On Call, visit www.musiciansoncall.org.