Bringing Tidings of Comfort and Joy to the Patient Bedside

Photo by Steve Fisch.

“In an emergency, what treatment is given by ear?” asks noted author and Stanford Medicine 25 leader Abraham Verghese.

His answer? “Words of comfort.”

As Verghese describes, the ability to conjure feelings of comfort and joy plays an important role at the patient bedside, especially during difficult times. Verghese emphasizes the role of soothing words, but we’ve also noted other approaches, such as the incorporation of music and acts of kindness that can have a similarly medicinal effect—especially during the holiday season.

Medicinal Melodies

For example, Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine student and musician Iain Forrest realized that people in hospitals were the ones who needed music the most. So, he melded his passions for medicine and music by bringing his electric cello to the hospital.

According to Medscape author Patricia McKnight, Forrest read about the benefits of music therapy and learned that music in medical settings improves recovery rates, lowers stress and can also improve quality of life. With that knowledge, he co-founded a Mount Sinai student organization called “Music at Bedside” that allows students to connect with patients through music directly in hospital rooms.

Forrest recalls one particularly memorable performance. He was playing for a patient with advanced cancer in Mount Sinai’s palliative care unit. The patient’s family, also present, requested Forrest play “Let It Be” by The Beatles. “As soon as we started playing you could immediately see the patient's expression change. What was listless and tired before had transformed," Forrest explains. "His eyes lit up and he actually smiled."

Forrest says these moments are what make his performances so worthwhile. "Anybody who's been to a hospital, or visited a loved one, knows how isolating it can be," he tells McKnight. “The depression can be felt in the air, so you have to really try to give some joy to these people during tough times."

Check out this video to learn more about Forrest and his musical talent!

Providing Solace Through Song at Stanford

Stanford School of Medicine student Melanie Ambler brings this same concept to life right here in our own community! Ambler grew up in a family of musicians and learned to find escape in music. Ambler took to the cello and especially enjoyed playing it for her grandmother, who later developed Parkinson’s disease.

Through an undergrad class at Brown, Ambler learned how dance could promote movement for people with the condition. The experience motivated her to combine her passions for music and medicine. “It was really inspiring to learn about some kind of art that could improve her mobility,” she tells Stanford Medicine’s Scope.  After graduation, she spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in France, diving deeper into this concept and researching how music could benefit patients with neurodegenerative conditions.

Now as a medical student, she’s found new ways to combine her love of music and medicine. For example, on Wednesdays, Ambler holds virtual cello concerts on Zoom for critically ill patients. This initiative merged with the non-profit Project: Music Heals Us, which recently partnered with Stanford Hospital to perform virtual concerts for patients.

Ambler believes her love of music can help her become a better doctor. “I've noticed the things that make me a good musician are things that directly relate to how I might interact with patients,” she says. “The qualities required to excel in music or art are the very ones that are also crucial to success in medicine ... Those translate really beautifully into being a human-centered provider."

Check out her video below!

Big Meaning in Small Gestures

While music is one way to creatively build connections with patients, it isn’t the only avenue. Physicians don’t have to strike a harp or join a chorus to bring joy to patients. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of spotting the right opportunity to spark a smile.

For instance, as we discussed in a previous Stanford Medicine 25 blog post, Stanford medical student Thomas Beck, PhD, went the extra mile to “heal” a pediatric patient’s toy owl during the child’s hospital stay. “The smile on my patient’s face after we finished the cast was the highlight of my clinical year at @StanfordMed,” Beck said in a Tweet.

Similarly, the Wish Project at Stanford Health Care–ValleyCare, launched by Minh-Chi Tran, MD, harnesses the power of these small yet significant gestures. The program grants wishes to dying patients in an effort to celebrate their lives and ease grief. Requests are often simple and range from a glass of root beer to dinner with a loved one.

Tran says that she found the project especially rewarding because of its humanistic angle. “Something I found surprising about the project is that it takes very little to give families and people the feeling of being heard,” she says.

Making Time for What Matters Most

We’re glad to see physicians promote healing in kind and creative ways, whether it’s through a concert at the patient bedside, a child’s laughter, or a simple glass of root beer. We hope that you’ll join us at Stanford Medicine 25 in bringing joy to patients throughout the year, but especially during this holiday season. Happy Holidays from the Stanford Medicine 25 Team!

Subscribe to our mailing list