Music is good medicine
LIFESTYLE | A therapeutic harpist brings hymns and healing melodies to hospital patients in Atlanta
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Atlanta’s Northside Hospital delivers more babies than any other hospital in the country, and thanks to Angi Bemiss, one of the first sounds some of those newborns hear is harp music—soothing and surprising—coming from her Dusty Strings FH32.
The longtime musician remembers when nurses in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit first recognized her harp’s potential. The NICU babies had monitors attached to their fingers, and with 10 babies to a room, Bemiss says, the alarms were nearly constant. “But they noticed after I had been playing for a few minutes, the room would go quiet. The babies were breathing deeper as their bodies acclimated to the music. The nurses were amazed.”
Today, you can find Bemiss, 68, playing for babies, the elderly, surgical patients, bone marrow recipients, and others throughout Northside’s facilities, something she’s done since 1999 through the hospital’s Healing Sounds program. Her career as a chief financial officer didn’t hinder her desire to serve in this way. After she became certified as a therapeutic musician, Bemiss went to her business partners and proposed working just four days a week so she could play her harp on Fridays.
Now retired, Bemiss suits up in blend-into-the-background black and heads to the medical center at least twice a week. “It’s about the music, not me,” she stresses with a quiet smile, setting up in an atrium in Northside’s Women’s Center. Visitors look her way as she breaks the silence with a song called “Melissa’s Circle,” a piece based on a warmup exercise. “I start with it because it’s easy to play, and that’s good because people come up and ask all kinds of questions—is that your harp, how much did it cost, how long have you been playing?—and I am able to answer them.”
While other musicians play in lobbies only, Bemiss can play at bedsides because she’s a certified therapeutic musician, the only one on the hospital’s roster. An iPad attached to her harp cart holds digitized scores of more than 1,000 songs, but a third of the requests Bemiss gets is for hymns already tucked away in her memory. Such music allows her to express her faith without words, she says.
Even so, a globally recognized hymn like “Amazing Grace” is off-limits in common spaces because it may trigger deep emotions. Bemiss explains: “Triggering even good emotions can be inappropriate there. I’ve become very cognizant about not wanting someone to complain to hospital management. If I see tears in private rooms, I whisper, ‘Shall I continue?’ Response is 99 percent ‘yes,’ but it’s a one-on-one interaction.”
The first piece Bemiss’ harp instructor taught her was Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a staple he promised “could be played anywhere, for the rest of your life.” She proved him right decades later in an unlikely spot—on one of Northside’s oncology floors. A nurse asked Bemiss to set up outside the room of a patient who was too sick to attend her daughter’s wedding that day. Moments later Bemiss looked down the hall and saw a flurry of white round the corner. “The entire bridal party had come to visit the mom, so I broke into Canon in very grand style.”
That’s one of many stories Bemiss has recorded in a log she’s kept during her tenure at Northside. When she pulls the binder out and flips through its more than 300 pages, I can see some visits rate a single sentence, others a paragraph. None contain patient names because of privacy laws. The hospital auxiliary compensates Bemiss, but she adds, “I also play as a volunteer in some settings. I would never not play just because it isn’t compensated.”
Bemiss also collaborates with Northside’s chaplains, including chaplain director Amani Legagneur, who believes Bemiss’ music is an expression of her connection with the Holy Spirit: “That’s something patients can feel no matter what their religious background is. They can feel the faith that flows through her harp. It’s a gift to everyone who gets to experience it.”
Legagneur has watched therapeutic music emerge as a complementary field, and she’d like to see more hospitals investing resources into it. “It’s been around for a while, but people are just getting to do the science that shows neurological and physical benefits. In circumstances where patients can feel very fragmented and dehumanized, music seems to kind of pull them back together.”
Bemiss says the hours she spends playing hymns are faith-building because the words course through her head and heart. That’s also true for hospital staffers who listen in. Bemiss once played “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” as a busy young doctor prepared to enter a patient’s room. He raised his hand to knock on the door, then suddenly turned toward her and spoke: “My grandmother used to sing that song for me.” He paused to hum a few lines.
“The way I look at it,” Bemiss says, “a different doctor walked into that patient’s room.”