Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Healing Team Member Touches Hearts With Strings

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published June 15, 2006

Gail Pappacostas stroked her Celtic harp and soothed the quietly grinding tension in a unit where patients await invasive cardiovascular procedures at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, while health care professionals busily attended to the patients in the room.

“I was hoping you would come today,” manager Gloria Morandante, R.N., told the harpist as she passed by.

“We look forward every Tuesday to having her,” the petite manager said, as patient monitors beeped in the background. “It’s very soothing for the staff” and it helps patients in pre- and post-operative care “to relax and to listen to something besides the anxiety in their minds.”

Nearby B.J. Tucker lay in a bed in one of the bays partitioned by curtains, awaiting the generator replacement for her Pacemaker, as her husband sat at her bedside. Tucker, who previously had open-heart surgery, was pleasantly surprised to hear the hospital harpist for the first time.

“It’s lovely,” she said. “The first time you’re here you’re very apprehensive about what’s going to happen to you. It’s very nice, soothing, takes away some of the anxiety.”

Behind another curtain lay Elaine Feig, who had arisen at 4 a.m. and arrived at the hospital by 6 for her first catheterization, a procedure where a thin, flexible tube is placed inside the heart to obtain diagnostic information. It was her first hospital visit in 39 years. Now three and a half hours later, she listened to the harp melodies as she lay waiting, thinking about her loved ones and her favorite activities like gardening, golf and tennis. “It’s very meditative. It takes away the noise around here, the chattering.”

After about 15 minutes of harp music, “the staff started smiling, just slight smiles I noticed,” observed Jane Alexander, a nurse shadowing Pappacostas that day and training to be a harpist herself.

Pappacostas is a modern-day minstrel who brings the healing power of harp therapy to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, where she is a key member of their patient care team.

Rather than a stethoscope, as she makes her rounds through the hospital she rolls a four-and-a-half-foot harp, sharing her music with the sick and dying and with anxious families and friends.

It may be a person seeking treatment for depression or a loved one waiting nervously in a waiting room. Pappacostas plays for them all and finds that people are able to let go of negative emotions and to channel that energy into healing. Patients who are critical, anxious, fearful or depressed find hope, courage and belief, whatever their journey.

“It takes such a tremendous amount of energy to hold onto your emotions. You’re exhausted. What I’ve seen over and over is when that emotion has been touched and allowed to come forward there’s some magic moment that it meets hope and determination,” she said. “The energy used to hold onto fear and other emotions was then released to go on to healing their body.”

“The gentleness of the harp allows the emotions held so in check in a hospital to meet the cognitive mind. It might come out with tears or this beautiful smile on the face. It helps them to get back to what they believe.”

She lulls patients in pain to sleep finally. She plays in busy waiting rooms, quieting anxious voices and soothing the jumpy nerves of those awaiting news of their ill loved ones. She recalled one woman in the emergency room waiting on her husband. “She said, ‘I could feel my body coming down and down from the minute you started to play.’”

Pappacostas empathizes with all the patients, as she began playing the harp about nine years ago after her own health crisis. A musician and pianist for many years, she had grown tired of the piano and after attending a harp recital fell in love with the rich, poignant sound of the instrument. But before she could consider learning to play the harp, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was treated at Saint Joseph’s, where she underwent breast surgery and reconstruction.

A Cumming resident, she was discharged on her birthday, feeling “very positive” about her life and health and thinking she would like to do something for the hospital that gave her such compassionate care and made her feel safe. “When I got home, my husband gave me the most wonderful birthday present—a small harp he’d stored away until I was well enough to play it.”

Not content just to play as a hobby, she took lessons for over four years. A friend suggested she try a two-year program entitled Music for Healing and Transition to become a certified music practitioner, and during it she realized this was what she wanted to do. The program prepares musicians to serve the sick and dying and is based on the recognition of live music as a therapeutic enhancement to healing or the life/death transition. Courses include anatomy and physiology, music repertoire development, philosophy of healing and care of the dying.

“I completed the program and knew this was something special for me,” she said.

A retired elementary school teacher, Pappacostas began interning at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but found she wanted to go back to Saint Joseph’s and play for adults. The Saint Joseph’s pastoral care department—upholding the hospital’s mission of merciful care for body, mind and spirit—recognized the value of healing and peace that came through her music. They hired her in 2002 as part of their care team to play for patients of all types, as well as family members. She plays every Tuesday for about five hours.

“I love being there. It’s just the interaction between the doctors and RNs and staff. It’s very consistent and supportive of patients,” the harpist said.

Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, director of the pastoral care department, believes this is one of the best healing modalities they have added to their programming and is grateful to the WINGS fundraising group at the hospital that since last year has provided needed support to make the position possible.

“So many family members and patients and staff say what a difference it makes. The soothing music brings great peace of mind as they listen to it. It really has a healing effect on the patients. It reduces stress and brings comfort,” said the Sister of Mercy. “It’s harp music, but it’s also the person she is. She’s a very gentle, loving and compassionate person. … She’s truly an asset to Saint Joseph’s Hospital to be able to provide this kind of ministry.”

There are now over 400 music practitioners certified through the 11-year-old program. At Northside Hospital harpist Angi Bemiss, a certified music practitioner, is paid to play six hours a week, and several other musician volunteers play various instruments throughout the hospital. Bemiss has also played occasionally at Piedmont Hospital, where she has been working with hospital staff to establish a program.

Longtime Saint Joseph’s staff member Ela Macon, who is a patient service representative for cardiac care, recalled how she heard Pappacostas playing in the main lobby and asked her to add the cardiac area to her route. The friendly staffer said many patients and their loved ones have found a sense of comfort and tranquility through the music.

“A lot of people are very stressed here. This is heart-related,” she said. “I’ve been taking comments from families and passing them on to pastoral care. … It has been very wonderful for families over here.”

Macon recalled one irate man waiting for his ill wife whom she had to calm down, until the music quieted him and lulled him to sleep.

“The longer she is here the better it is for me,” she said earnestly. “I wish she could come more than one day a week.”

Pappacostas explained that in selecting music she plays non-recognizable music “so that emotions aren’t attached to it” and that the beat is usually about 60-70 per minute, a healthy heart rate, and in major keys. She chooses what to play, ranging from a calming lilt to a more uplifting sound, depending on the mood and needs of the patients and staff of the unit.

“I really go on my intuitive kind of sense. I can be in the middle of a song and say this feels horrible, and I’ll change it. It’s just a feeling I pick up from people. The admission and recovery unit this morning was extremely busy, a lot of hubbub because of the number of patients,” she said. “For the dying, the music should be unrecognizable because you don’t want a familiar song to hold them here, you want the music to help them die in peace. Critically ill patients need uncomplicated songs with a calming 60 to 70 beats per minute to help regulate their heartbeat. Children and the elderly tend to respond well to everything from lullabies to oldies.”

Later that morning, the wandering bard quietly moved her instrument on to the second floor vascular intensive care unit with her trainee. Alexander is now taking harp lessons and is looking into certification. She spoke of the “great potential” this music has. Many times Pappacostas’ meditative music lowers the blood pressure of patients by increasing their oxygen saturation and relaxing them. Having worked as a nurse in ICU units, “the stress level in these situations is life or death, it really is. The unknown is so hard for people,” Alexander said.

In the ICU an upset visitor demanded to see a doctor as the harpist began to strum with low-key verve in a corner. One nurse affirmed as she entered a patient’s room, “That is so beautiful, and we appreciate it.”

Pappacostas recalled a past ICU visit to play for a patient who was quite agitated. She calmly strummed, waiting for his storm to pass. Finally, she noticed a small change: He was tapping his toe in beat with the music. Slowly, he relaxed completely. The patient’s medical team was encouraged to find that his blood pressure had dropped nearly 20 points. “I can see objective evidence of people enjoying the effects.”

She has a code of ethics—she can’t share her profound faith with patients unless they ask—but she can express it through her music.

“God touches people through the music. The music goes right into people and helps them respond to whatever spirituality they feel. Those feelings then release a healing response,” she said.

As for her personal code of ethics, surviving cancer guides Pappacostas’ choices. She decided she wasn’t on this earth just to find her own niche but to discover how her niche can help others.

“(My music vocation) was planned I think before I was born,” she said. “Now I can’t imagine being without it.”

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