Ed Paulson uses his hammered dulcimer to comfort critically ill hospital patients.
By DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003
SAFETY HARBOR -- It's late Monday morning, and Ed Paulson walks briskly down the hall at Mease Countryside Hospital pushing a dolly with a padded maroon case strapped to it.
As he approaches Room 353, Paulson slows down. He doesn't know how 74-year-old heart patient Margaret Schafer feels or how she will receive his visit. Schafer has trouble breathing and suffers from a constant cough.
In her room, Paulson introduces himself and sets up his hammered dulcimer, a musical instrument similar to the harp and the piano. He briefly describes what he's about to play and uses two small leather-padded hammers to strike the notes for Ashokan Farewell, a light, shimmering folk tune. Schafer's cough fades. She pushes her left ear forward toward Paulson's playing. Her stare softens as the song fills the room.
Paulson, 79, of Palm Harbor is a volunteer certified music practitioner. For 21/2 years, he has visited critically ill hospital patients at Mease Countryside, playing music to soothe and comfort them.
"There is a ton of medical evidence which establishes what music does to the body, the mind, and how it interacts," he said. "It stimulates the immune system, promotes healing, reduces stress, relives pain."
Paulson isn't alone in that belief.
"What happens is most patients have infections or trauma and there's an increase in the body's metabolic rate," which interferes with healing, said Dr. Navnit Kundra, a physician in pulmonary and critical care at Mease Countryside.
"We ask ourselves, 'How can we decrease the metabolic rate?"' Kundra said. "We do this with antibiotics and rest, but we also ask, how to take care of the body and the mind, which is functioning too fast? The music acts on the hypothalamus of the body. It is soothing and relaxing. It decreases the metabolic rate and helps with faster healing. It gives a soothing effect, but it is not a total cure."
More than just entertainment
Paulson usually goes to the hospital once a week and sees about 10 patients. Nurses pick the patients based on the severity of their ailments and states of mind. On the Monday he sees Schafer, he will stay at Mease Countryside well into the afternoon, moving from room to room.
After Schafer, Paulson's next patient is Bob Pratt, 64, of Safety Harbor, a critically ill heart and lung patient. Pratt sits up in bed, fascinated by the odd, boxy instrument. The music begins and he sinks back.
"This kind of music puts you up on a plane, you float along with it," Pratt said.
Paulson recalls that one of the first patients he ever played for was so agitated she swung at nurses with her fists.
"She was totally out of control," he said. "It took three nurses to get her back into bed before I could go in and play for her. When I went in she was writhing and half out of bed."
Despite her agitation, Paulson politely introduced himself to the woman, carefully balanced his dulcimer on its stand and began to play.
"I played longer than usual, 20, 25 minutes," he said. "She became very calm. You could tell she was paying attention to the music."
Paulson recalls many times where patients became so relaxed during the treatment that they fell asleep before the end of his typical 15-minute session.
"It is experiences like this which validate that what I am doing is worth the time in doing it," Paulson said. "If patients were merely entertained by this, it wouldn't be worth my time, it would be just another audience. This is much more."
Practitioners are trained and certified in the techniques of using music to help patients through the Music for the Healing & Transition Program, a national program based out of Hillsdale, N.Y.
"Many patients are agitated, anxious, in pain," said Linda Ziegler, a clinical nurse manager in the hospital's telemetry unit. "He creates a mood which is more relaxed. They feel much calmer."
Paulson gives his treatments using a hammered dulcimer, a 21-pound, 78-string precursor to the piano with musical roots that go back to biblical times.
"The instrument's tonal range falls between a harp and a piano and is varied by the playing technique or how hard you hit the strings," Paulson said. He crafts each performance specifically for each patient after consulting with the patient's nurse and speaking with the patient.
"Although the dulcimer and the harp are the most popular instruments for the treatments, musicians also use guitars, violins, keyboards and mandolins," Paulson said.
'They need something'
Paulson's journey into the therapeutic world of music was unanticipated. In January 1987, he and his wife, Mary, moved from Cleveland to Palm Harbor after he retired after a career as a data systems manager. He was 63, and he was looking for a hobby.
"I like music and I wanted to play something," he said. "The banjo had five strings, the guitar had six so I figured (the banjo) would be easier. That was not true."
Paulson pursued his skills with the banjo by joining live performance groups at folk festivals. He also found camaraderie with Mr. Ethnic's Wednesday Night Fiddle Support Group, 10 to 20 folk musicians who used to gather weekly in Tampa to play grass roots American music.
He even played individually at several folk festivals over the years and played when people asked him to perform for church groups and museum and business openings.
Yet Paulson, who has volunteered in scouting, church and other groups all his life, felt unfulfilled.
"I was looking for some way to use my music one-on-one," Paulson said.
Disenchanted with the banjo, Paulson grew more interested in studying the hammered dulcimer. At the same time, he fed his need to volunteer by serving as an adult literacy tutor at the Tarpon Springs Library. In 1991, he started the volunteer Adult Literacy Program at the Palm Harbor Library. But he still was searching for a musical outlet, one that offered more than simply performing for an audience.
After 12 years he left his literacy program, which was brimming with 100 volunteers and 90 students.
As Paulson continued to study the hammered dulcimer he read a 1999 magazine article about people who play music for patients. The dulcimer was one of the more widely used instruments.
The article guided his path. He learned about the Music for Healing & Transition Program in 2001 from Roxie Smith, a hospice nurse in Pinellas County. It opened a new way for him to volunteer.
"With literacy you open up the world to somebody by teaching them to read and write," Paulson said. "Music reaches people mentally, physically, spiritually and helps to bring about their healing."
He became proficient with the hammered dulcimer, which offered a wider musical range than the banjo.
"It has so much more potential as an instrument than the banjo," Paulson said. "The banjo was limited to bluegrass and country, the instrument isn't as expressive as the dulcimer, which is basically a two-fingered piano. You can play show tunes and classical with it, all the musical styles."
Although Paulson plays for critically ill patients, other music practitioners tailor their music to other patients: children, Alzheimer's patients, the dying.
Paulson's faith in the therapeutic power of music is bolstered by 75 hours of coursework and workshops on anatomy, physiology, diseases, pharmacology and how music heals. He believes the music is good for everyone, including patients, family and nurses.
"Being a family member of a patient is tiring when it is prolonged, it becomes a strain," Paulson said. "We have a significant elderly population here, many family members are from out of state and are here for dire circumstances, they need something to help relieve their stress."
Paulson said nurses of his patients often ask him to play for them.
"You can tell by their voice if they just want to hear some music or they are really having a hard time," he said.