Press & Testimonials

Tattersall’s Achievement Award

August 7th, 2008


For the first time in its twenty eight year history, two community heroes have shared the 2008 Annual Tattersall’s Award for Enterprise and Achievement.  They were chosen from the twelve monthly winners who were the finalists in this year’s award. 

The judges declared that it was impossible to split the work of Peter Roberts, a Music-Thanatologist who works in and around the Geelong districts, and Ashley Rosshandler, the founder of Karma Currency.

At the age of 46, Peter Roberts decided that his life needed more meaning and what he did next was truly remarkable. Leaving behind a successful furniture business in Geelong, he moved his family to the United States to learn Music in Medicine, known as Music-Thanatology. Music-Thanatology is prescriptive music provided to seriously ill and dying people as well as for their relatives and carers. 

Peter’s work is unique; he is one of a kind. He is currently the only person in Australia practicing Music-Thanatology The live harp music and voice in vigils that Peter provides to dying patients gives them a sense of peace and sanctuary. 

Peter provides his services at no cost to patients and relies on donations and his work as a harp maker.

This win will allow Peter to continue his work with the Institute of Music in Medicine and his plans for training Australian practitioners in Music-Thanatology.

Additional information about Peter Roberts and Music Thanatology can be found at

In 2007, Ashley Rosshandler gave up a successful career in advertising for the higher ideal of working for charity and he founded the not-for-profit Karma Currency. 

Karma Currency is Australia’s first not-for-profit Charity Gift Voucher website which lets people share the gift of giving. 

In an effort to reduce the money spent on unwanted gifts, Ashley created Australia’s first on-line charity gift voucher website. Consumers purchase a charity gift voucher and the recipient can choose to divest the monies into their area of interest or favourite charity such as the homeless, medical research, the environment etc.

Since 2007, over $100K has been donated via the charity gift vouchers. They include projects such as clearing land mines in Cambodia, reuniting war-torn families in Africa, supplying clean drinking water, supplying cutlery to a local soup kitchen and rescuing gorillas in the Congo.

Operating from South Melbourne, Karma Currency now has over 100 recognised charities that prosper as a result of Ashley’s enterprise and achievement.

More information about Karma Currency can be found at

Background Information—Tattersall’s Enterprise & Achievement Award
The Tattersall’s Award for Enterprise and Achievement is a grass roots based program that honours those people in our community who are prepared to work and sacrifice for others and ‘have a go’. 

They can ‘have a go’ by performing heroic acts, helping others in the community or overcoming physical disabilities. Peter Roberts and Ashley Rosshandler are great examples of what this award represents. Two special people with vision, determination and strength to help others less fortunate than themselves.

The monthly award is designed to acknowledge those in the community who are prepared to put others before themselves. Since the Awards’ launch in 1980, over 310 men, women and children have been recognised.

Each monthly winner received $2,500, a trophy and a $15,000 donation to their nominated beneficiary. This year’s annual winners each receive a personal prize of $5,000 and a donation of $25,000 towards their respective nominated beneficiary.

Further Information: Michael Mangos, General Manager. External
Communications 0419 551 980

Created: August 13, 2008     Last updated: August 13, 2008

Healing Patients with the Harp

Music-Thanatologist Comforts Terminally Ill

The Boston Channel, May 31st, 2007
By Heather Unruh, Newscenter 5 reporter

Link to Article featuring the work of Jennifer Hollis.

Created: May 31, 2007     Last updated: August 20, 2010

Soothing Strings

Hospital musical vigils may help ease passage for dying patients

Anchorage Daily News - February 23rd, 2003
By Ann Potempa

Karen Gilley steps into Room 531 to see her patient. Leaning over his hospital bed, she checks his pulse and strokes his balding head. Guy McGee’s heart is racing, and his skin is clammy. Lung cancer and pneumonia make him struggle for every breath. “Hello, Guy,” she said, almost whispering near his cheek. “I’m going to play for you.”

Gilley, a registered nurse, comes with an unusual medical instrument. She’s trained to play the harp to ease the pain and anxiety of critical illness and death. Her profession is called music thanatology. The treatment prescribes music, not medication, for dying patients. Gilley met McGee when he didn’t have much life left. Part of her job is to honor his dying hours as an important part of his life. His death will become part of the fabric of his life, just like the day he was born in Idaho 85 years ago, his marriage to wife Pat almost 55 years ago, and the almost four years he spent surviving as a prisoner of war during World War II. But he won’t survive this. Pat watches her husband lie motionless in a white T-shirt, covered in white bedsheets and a white blanket. His cancer is inoperable, she said.

Gilley sits in a dim corner of McGee’s room at Providence Alaska Medical Center, breathes deeply and cradles the harp between her legs. Instead of reading music, she reads McGee. She studies his face, his breathing, his physical reactions as she plays a soft song. McGee doesn’t react when Gilley starts. But she plays anyway, believing her music might provide some relief for him or the family and friends with him. The entire time, McGee doesn’t stir, just rests soundly with his eyes shut and his right cheek leaning into his pillow. Gilley thinks her patient is asleep, which is a complete switch from the first time she came to play for him earlier that week. “My God, he wouldn’t shut his eyes,” Pat said. “He was just fascinated.”

Gilley’s profession has a long history. Therese Schroeder-Sheker’s book “Transitus: A Blessed Death in the Modern World” explains how music thanatology made its way from France to Montana to Alaska. Schroeder-Sheker was the dean of the program in Montana that taught Gilley how to play the harp. Schroeder-Sheker’s work with dying patients began when she was an undergraduate student working in an elderly home. She often watched as people died alone, in pain and depressed. “Many died accompanied only by the blare of the television and the canned laughter of ‘I Love Lucy’ re-runs,” she wrote. She decided to change that. One day she showed up for work and learned an elderly man was quickly dying of emphysema. She walked into his room and saw him thrashing, gasping and crying out. “Everything fell away, and just two human beings were left in the same room, facing a moment that would become very large,” she wrote. Schroeder-Sheker climbed onto his bed, sat behind him and held up his body. She began singing quietly. He rested into her and stopped thrashing. They began breathing together until he stopped. She held him as he died. Death had been treated as the enemy, but she looked at it another way. To her, a person’s last moments were a part of the fullness of life. Schroeder-Sheker expanded on this experience by pulling from history. Her 20th-century music thanatology program drew from 11th-century France. Back then, Benedictine monks incorporated music into their daily routines, singing their prayers and psalms. Monastic medicine sought to care for the body and cure the soul by combining physical medicine like drugs and surgery with spiritual medicine like prayers and blessings. Music became a tool the monks used to tend to dying patients. As modern-day medicine became more and more complex, with advanced MRIs and genetic therapies, Schroeder-Sheker created the Chalice of Repose Project to offer relief solely with harp and voice. In the early 1990s, she brought her work to Missoula, Mont., and started a two-year training program at St. Patrick Hospital. The students, many of whom were nurses, learned how to play harp and sing Gregorian chants that addressed patients’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs. They studied how different religions and nationalities deal with death. In 2000, Gilley committed to the two-year program. “It was something I always wanted to do before I died,” she said. “I would always have thought about that on my deathbed: What would you regret not doing in your life? “And that would have been it.”

The Chalice of Repose came to Providence Alaska Medical Center partly because of Gilley’s drive to start it and partly due to administrator Gene O’Hara’s decision to bring the program with him to a new job. For almost 10 years, O’Hara worked as the chief operating officer at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. He watched as the Chalice of Repose started as an idea and then grew to include nurses playing the harp in hospital rooms and studying music in classrooms. “It served a need that hospitals have really been ignoring forever,” O’Hara said. “Modern health care does an excellent job addressing diagnosis, cure and therapy. We do not do as well in addressing death. Why is that?” Everyone dies, O’Hara continued, so why don’t medical professions strive to ease the pain that comes with inevitable death instead of treating death like a failure? Gilley said one problem is nurses lack time to comfort patients as well as treat them. “My nursing care on the floor was definitely lacking when someone was dying,” she said. “You’re so busy. You’re understaffed a lot of times. You just don’t have the time to sit there and do what you learned to do in school—the ideal world where you can sit there and hold somebody’s hand and talk to them and the family for hours.” O’Hara was invited to attend harp vigils at St. Patrick and saw firsthand the music’s calming effect on patients and families. “I made a commitment back then that I’m going to take this program to whatever hospital I go to,” he said. In 1997, he took a job as chief executive officer at Providence Alaska Medical Center. O’Hara and Monica Anderson, the hospital’s former spiritual-care director, learned Gilley wanted to bring the Chalice to Providence. Anderson secured hospital foundation money to cover Gilley’s tuition. When Gilley finished the program and returned to Providence, administrators committed to offering her services full time at no charge to hospital patients.

Once when Gilley sat down to play for McGee, his wife requested “Danny Boy.” Gilley explained that she plays personalized music, not songs that people would know. “Favorite pieces are more engaging,” Gilley said. “They have a tendency of provoking memories, and those memories are what’s binding you to your body, your life.” But how can you prepare to let go if you’re bonding with your memories, Gilley asks. And what if those memories aren’t happy ones? The songs Gilley typically plays lack meter and rhythm; instead, they’re free-flowing, with long, stretched-out notes. She might pick a piece with rippling notes to imitate the cooling effects of water. She’ll play a close interval of notes to draw together a family that’s struggling to connect. She’ll opt to play the Kyrie for Feasts of the Blessed Virgin because it’s made her cry and is likely to do the same for some patients. “There’s been some people that I’ve played for that you can see that they really want to cry but they just won’t,” she said. “You can see that in people.” The Kyrie has the power to make that happen, mixing major tones with minor ones. It’s the minor tones that can hit deep inside a person, she said, where they can reflect on what’s happening to them. When Gilley plays, the doors to the patient’s room are sometimes left ajar, allowing her music to waft down the hallways. Some people want her to perform for them later, but Gilley is emphatic when she says she’s not an entertainer. “To me, this is nursing,” she said. “It’s just a really special way of doing it.”

For years, nurses graduated from the Chalice of Repose school in Montana and took their craft across the country. Shortly after Gilley’s graduation last fall, however, the school closed at St. Patrick Hospital. Schroeder-Sheker became a visiting professor at Duke University in North Carolina but plans to restart the music thanatology training program in Mount Angel, Ore., said Sharon Murfin, a faculty member from the Montana school. Over time, music thanatologists have gained acceptance. O’Hara remembers the rough reception the prescriptive harp program received during its early days in Montana. Some physicians considered it “new age” medicine, he said, even though music thanatology has roots that extend back thousands of years. “They just didn’t understand it,” he said. Murfin, a music thanatologist for the past 10 years, knows it’s a challenge to talk about music as medicine. The Chalice of Repose staff and graduates, however, are trying to study it in a scientific way. Murfin said certified music thanatologists will study outcomes from new-patient cases in Spokane, Wash., this year. She hopes the research team will complete the project within a year. At St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., nurse Laura Moya uses specialized software to help her recall her harp vigils. After each, she writes an entry in her computerized journal. She chronicles the patients’ breathing patterns and pulse rates, as well as if the patient starts to cry or if the family is able to grieve. Eventually, she hopes to discover trends. Usually, Moya said, she notices that music helps patients breathe more softly or sleep. In rare instances, she doesn’t detect any changes or she sees an extreme shift. “At times, there are the most profound vigils, where a person either has a most incredible, peaceful death or someone who’s struggling stops struggling,” she said. When Gilley returned to Providence from Missoula last fall, she started writing journal entries about her patients. She also organized brown-bag lunches to explain her new practice to nurses, doctors or anyone else wanting to know more. As a result, Providence’s program started with overwhelming support, O’Hara said. Jeannie Keith, nurse manager for the hospital’s medical oncology ward, said Gilley was busy from the start, fielding referrals for harp vigils from nurses, chaplains, families, even the patients. Gilley used her music to help Tom Morris overcome anxiety and pain after heart surgery. Morris is a music aficionado and can talk nonstop about the pleasures of listening to all kinds of performers. But he’d never heard anything like Gilley’s music. Even after she’d left his room, he’d keep thinking about one of her pieces. “That one song would go over and over in my mind,” he said. “I forgot all about the pain. “Boom, right there it went,” he said. The music made him visualize that he was elsewhere, feeling as if he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. “It sends you into a different place, and I didn’t realize that could happen. I tell you, it’s the best medicine that you can ever get.”

Back in Guy McGee’s hospital room, Gilley realizes her music is getting to her patient. She knows he isn’t feeling well, so she picks music that won’t overwhelm him. She starts with a short piece that begins on a note that’s higher than expected. That gives McGee a sense of suspension, she said. Gilley says it’s her way of offering a musical break after he had worked so hard to breathe. She switches to the Kyrie with minor tones designed to help him dig deep inside himself and release any pain or emotion he’s struggling with. The last piece she plays is a blessing, and she stretches and stretches the notes to calm him. As she finishes playing, the sun is setting over the treetops outside McGee’s window. His wife walks to his bedside, peers at him and then at the machine tracking his oxygen saturation level. All morning, the machine had beeped, warning that his levels were in the 70s. A normal oxygen level is 90 or higher. With music, his jumped from 88 to 93. Gilley approaches the bedside, checking his pulse and respiration. His pulse has fallen from 140 beats a minute to 100. She turns to McGee’s son and offers encouragement. “His respiration rate is a lot slower and deeper,” she said. “You can’t help but see it.” Gilley leaves the room, marveling at the outcomes. She wraps up her work and heads home for the weekend. But on Monday morning, she returns to Providence and hears unexpected news: Guy McGee died Sunday. “It just kind of blew my mind away,” she said, sitting outside the chapel awaiting her next referral for a harp vigil. “You never know about people. That’s why when you get the referral, you try to get there as soon as you can.”

Reporter Ann Potempa can be reached at 907-257-4581 or apotempa AT adn DOT com

© Copyright 2003, The Anchorage Daily News, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Companyimage
Reprinted with permission.


Created: February 23, 2003     Last updated: August 14, 2008

Prescriptive Music

Santa Fe New Mexican - December 2nd, 2002
By Deborah Davis

Members of Santa Fe’s Circle of Love play music to terminally ill patients in an effort to relieve pain and help them experience a peaceful, conscious death.

Not many musicians prefer their audience fall asleep during a performance. But when the three members of the Circle of Love play their harps and softly sing, they love seeing their audience of one drift into such relaxation that he or she nods off a little.

On a recent afternoon, Maria Hernandez relaxed into her wheelchair, her eyes closed, her head slowly lowering down to the melodic sounds of the harp that filled her living room. It was the 10th time Circle of Love, a nonprofit agency that provides live music at no cost to terminally ill patients, performed a music vigil for Hernandez in her daughter’s home.

Photo Caption: L to R, Music-thanatologists Margaret Pasquesi, Tony Pederson, and Judith Shotwell, near El Rito, NM

Her daughter, Betty Scannapieco, peeked her head around the corner, listening to the music in between cleaning out closets in preparation for Christmas visits. “I think this is better than yoga,” she remarked.

Judith Shotwell founded Circle of Love in 1995 but aside from visiting help, she has been the only person playing 20 to 25 music vigils each month. This month, she is joined by two more thanatologists—students of death, dying and the psychological mechanisms used to deal with the process—who graduated from the only school in the country for music-thanatology, the School of Music-Thanatology in Missoula, Mont.

The sole focus of music-thanatology, a sub-specialty of palliative medicine, is to provide physical and spiritual care of the dying with prescriptive music. The goal is to relieve acute physiological pain and foster a peaceful or conscious death.

“Just the sound of the music within the home creates a matrix of beauty and safety,” Shotwell explained. “Families have said we can be together and feel everything together, but we don’t have to use words.”

With three people available to reach out to dying patients, Shotwell expects to be able to expand their services to more nursing homes and St. Vincent Hospital. Currently, they work with Presbyterian Medical Services’ hospice program so they primarily go to people’s homes or nursing homes.

Bee Zollo, a registered nurse with the hospice center, watches how her patients change when Circle of Love conducts an hour vigil with them. One patient had been in a lot of pain and unable to rest; after the music started she fell into a deep sleep.

“I’ve seen people whose faces are tense and uncomfortable and as the music starts, this process of relaxation begins and the tenseness rolls out of the body,” Zollo said.

Because music-thanatology requires a person to do nothing, to just be, family members and caregivers also benefit from the experience. “A lot of caregivers are on task all the time, so to have a real invitation to receive instead of constantly giving and to see their loved one shift into a place of greater comfort of peace and serenity, it does tons for the caregivers,” Shotwell said.

Part of the vision behind Circle of Love is that no one should have to pay for this experience. Shotwell is constantly searching for more grants to support the organization, which receives funding from the McCune, LANL and Frost foundations, New Mexico Arts and St. Bede’s Episcopal Church.

Circle of Love plays for any person diagnosed with a terminal illness, including those who have just learned about their diagnosis. In Missoula, Tony Pederson and Margaret Pasquesi, the two new music-thanatologists, played for trauma victims in a hospital and for patients and family members when doctors terminate the patient’s life support.

“We can be there to let them know the beauty of the world here and the beauty of the world they could go to,” Pasquesi said.

Pederson added: “That’s such a hard time for families, and sometimes music can be a bridge so there’s not that awful silence, and the music can be a gentle presence.”

Performing music vigils is not as simple as it may seem. First of all, it’s not a performance like you would hear from a professional musician. Music-thanatologists call their repertoire thematic material or a collection of tools, rather than songs. They shape their music around their patients’ breathing, pulse rate and temperature. If patients are in pain and breathing short, shallow breaths, a thanatologist works with the music to make the patients’ breaths longer and slower to help them rest.

“It’s important that the music is live so you can respond to every change a patient makes,” Pasquesi said.

When Pasquesi led the music during a vigil for Hernandez, she intently studied Hernandez’s body posture, slowing the music down as Hernandez was lulled by the sound.

Scannapieco, Hernandez’s daughter, said her mother looks forward to their visits because she feels so peaceful afterwards.

“It’s good for the soul,” Scannapieco said.

© Copyright 2002, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Reprinted with permission.

Created: December 02, 2002     Last updated: August 14, 2008

Music as Medicine

Soothing Sounds Help Provide Peace to Terminally Ill Patinets - and their Families

The Register-Guard - April 22nd, 2001
By Lewis Taylor - Photos by James Shipley

Beneath a crisp, white hospital sheet, a woman’s crumpled form rises and fialls with each labored breath.She lies unconscious as her sister, bedside, comforts her with gloved hands. A few feet away, another woman sits on a black metal stool, holding a large wooden harp.

The harpist takes a moment to compose herself, looks at the woman in the bed and begins plucking the brightly coloured strings. The sound fills the room gradually, like water pouring into a glass.

The music blankets the odd angles of the room, wrapping itself around the rolling funiture and the linoleum and the clear plastic bag labeled “drip narcotic.”

As the harpist starts chanting a soft, shallow voice, the sister dabs her eyes with a tissue, and the dying woman appears to twitch her nose in response to the music in the room.

THE HARP has long been associated with the pearly gates of heaven. But for terminally ill patients at Eugene’s Sacred Heart Mecical Center and their family members, the instrument is more than an image - it’s medicine, and it works. “They sang and played the harp, and my mother completely relaxed,” says Linda Kraus of Lake Oswego, who attended two bedside harp vigils at Sacred Heart while her mother, Betty Risgby, lay dying earlier this year. “It was like a little miracle happening.”

Photo Caption: Sister Vivian Ripp (left) and Loraine McCarthy, music thanatologists at Sacred Heart, give a harp vigil for patient Mary Rooney and her daughter, Patricia Casey.

Photo Caption:After playing the harp for more than 30 minutes, Sister Vivian Ripp consoles Patricia Casey during the vigil for her mother, Mary Rooney.

Each year, dozens of patients and family members attend similar ceremonies at Sacred Heart, thanks to a pastoral care program called Strings of Compassion. Staffed by Sister Vivian Ripp and Loraine McCarthy, the free program seeks to improve the quality of life for dying patients, perhaps even relieve some of their pain.

Known as music-thanatology, the treatment is based on 11th century monastic practices and modern-day teachings. “I love what I do,” McCarthy says. “It’s such a privilege. Every vigil is unique and special. It’s like being invited into a sacred space.” Sister Vivian says the program is more than just live music at the bedside.“Music touches us holistically. It’s a mind-body-spirit connection,” she says. “What I hope to bring is the possibility of some pain relief, anxiety relief, group support and relaxation.” And relaxation isn’t just being relaxed. It’s being relaxed and centered so that there is a sense of peace.”

Four years ago, when Bob Scheri, director of pastoral and spiritual care services at Sacred Heart, hired Sister Vivian, the hospital became only the second in the country to offer a fully integrated music-thanatology program. The initiative, Scheri says, grew out of a desire to improve the quality of care for terminally ill patients, who are too often told: “There’s nothing more we can do.”

“When someone is dying there is a great deal you can to do to provide healing, care and support,” Scheri says. “This was something that I felt could be a real strong statement about our care giving.” Today, there are music-thanatology programs at hospitals in Spain, Australia, the Netherlahds, Scotland and, closer to home, at hospitals in Bend, Seattle, Baltimore and, soon, Portland. Strings of Compassion has become a model for other hospitals looking to improve their end-of-life care. The program has outperformed even Scheri’s hopes.
“We expected a certain amount of skepticism, and we have not really received any,” Scheri says. “We have received only open arms and affirmation.”

When Linda Kraus’ mother fell ill earlier this year, she already had heard about Strings of Compassion. Still, she was surprised by the calming effect it had on her mother and her family. “It made the experience less paintul for me,” Kraus says. “I think it did for my sister, too, and I know it did for my mother.”

Kraus attended two bedside vigils for her mother. During the first she cried while her mother was slowly lulled to sleep by Sister Vivian’s harp.
The second service was attended by Kraus’ husband, Robert; her sister, Vickie Hamory, and some family friends. It was less emotional for Kraus, but proved extremely moving for the others. Several people left the room to collect themselves.“I would recommend it to anyone,” Kraus says. “We felt most thankfull that we were able to have the experience.”

Photo Caption:Loraine McCarthy says one of her goals as a music-thanatologist is to help the people she is playing for find a comfortable, peaceful death.

TOGETHER, McCarthy and Sister Vivian have presided over about 500 bedside vigils. Sister Vivian once played for two hours for a dying 20 year old man injured in a falI. Another time, she played for only a few moments before an old man wasting away from lung cancer made her stop, he said he couldn’t stand the harp’s vibrations. McCarthy and Sister Vivian see dying patients of all ages. Some are in their prime, some are well past their prime and some are barely out of the womb. In each case, they say the pain and suffering is unique, as is the family’s response.“You are constantly making decisions about what you are playing and the way you are playing,” Sister Vivian says, “and that’s why the music is called prescriptive music.” Sister Vivian adjusts her musical prescription by altering the pace of the music to keep time with the breathing of her patients. Like a musician reading the mood of an audience, she plays different pieces to fit the needs of different patients. “I’m going in without an agenda,” she says. “I’m there to be available and to assist what is going to happen, ... to bring a sense of presence and passion to the experience.”

Nearly four years ago, when Julie Stoike’s mother, Barbara, entered the hospital with a brain aneurism, Sister Vivian approached the Eugene family and asked if they wished to have a vigil performed. 

Initially, Stoike recalls, she was not interested. “My first instinct was, ‘No,’ Stoike recalls. “You’re at this pinnacle of grief at that point, your family really unites, and you don’t let outsiders in. “When she came up and said she was going to play the harp, all I could think was, ‘go away, we are grieving. We don’t want to be bothered. Nothing can help us with something so tragic and painful.”

Several days later, after talking it over with her sister, Stoike agreed to a vigil. Although her mother was unconscious, Stoike is convinced the treatment had a powerful effect.

In addition to providing her mother with some solace in her remaining hours, she says, it allowed Stoike and her family to open themselves to the experience. “In America, we have such denial when it comes to the death experience,” Stoike says. “People just want to run away from it; get away from it. They don’t want to deal with it, and they lose the experience. “It is a sacred experience, just like birth.” Stoike says taking part in her mother’s vigil changed her whole outlook on death and dying. She feels lucky to have been at her mother’s side as she took her last breaths.

“My advice to people is to make it an experience,” Stoike says. “It’s going te be the last experience you will ever have wilh your loved one, and you should make it a good one. I’m not saying bring drinks and have a party, but to not run away from it and to accept it. There was such respect for my mother’s life. It was not what I expected at all,” Stoike continues. “I never thought that the death experience could be beautiful, but I couldn’t have asked for a better passing of the greatest person I’ve ever loved.”

Sister Vivian, who grew up in Salem, first heard of music-thanatology while working as a medical oncology chaplain at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont. The hospital happened to be the headquarters for a school founded by Therese Schroeder-Sheker, the mother of music-thanatology. Sister Vivian was intrigued. Schoeder-Sheker offered a care program and a graduate level school of music-thanatology called the Chalice of Repose Project. Sister Vivian, a musician with a master’s degree in applied spirituality from the University of San Francisco and a specialty in caring for the terminally ill, found that “all the pieces of my background fit into doing this work.” McCarthy, who hails from Seaside, also brought a musical background and an interest in working with the terminally ill to the Chalice of Repose Project. In order to graduate from the 2 1/2-year program, both women were required to perform 60 bedside vigils, complete a research project and pass a comprehensive exam. Sister Vivian graduated in the school’s first class in 1994; McCarthy finished up two years later.

Other programs offer music therapy to sick patients, but Chalice of Repose is the most comprehensive and the best known. Schroeder-Sheker, a former concert harpist who has performed at Carnegie Hall, began studying palliative medicine—treatment to improve the quality of life at its end - several decades ago. Regarded as on of the pioneers in the field, she has been the subject of features on ABC’s “Nightline” program and in Life magazine. Music-thanatologists who study with Schroeder-Sheker are not required to subscribe to a particular religion. But, Sister Vivian says most of those who practice the treatment do have some sort of spiritual belief system. Death has become an everyday part of Sister Vivian’s life, but her ease with the subject did not come without effort. “To be with the dying, you have to face what is the meaning of death,” Sister Vivian says. “You have to be comfortable with suffering, comfortable with people’s actions, comfortable with feelings of intense loss.”

Photo Caption:Above: Vickie Harmory clings to her mother’s hand while Sister Vivian plays a Gregorian chant.

Similarly, those who receive treatment from Sister Vivian are not required to practice an organized religion. Stoike says the treatment was more reverential of her mother’s life than anything else. “It was not, ‘Let’s bless her,’ ” Stoike says. “It was, ‘Let’s just play music, just take a moment out of all this stress and agony and just be able to listen to some beautitul music.”

Much of the music performed by McCarthy and Sister Vivian is church music written in the ninth through the 11th centuries. They are mostly Gregorian chants and other “unmetered” music, pieces that don’t have the clomping; heavy beats that might be disruptive to a frail patient. “The music isn’t entertainment,” Sister Vivian says. “This music is different. If you can enter into the music for 30 to 45 minutes, it’s like taking a journey. People often don’t talk. They just let the music speak to them.”

Patients and their families aren’t the only ones who believe in music-thanatology. Dr. Joseph Dunn, a pain management specialist with a practice in Eugene, often works with terminally ill patients. He first heard about Strings of Compassion four years ago at a medical conference. “I don’t know if I was skeptical but I was confused,” Dunn says. “I didn’t know exactly what it was.” Dunn first witnessed the treatment when a 43-year-old man dying of cancer of the esophagus went through a vigil with Sister Vivian. The results were hard to quantify, Dunn says, but the benefits of the treatment were difficult to miss.

“It helped control his pain during the time it was going on,” Dunn says. “It helped decrease his anxiety. And it provided an environmen for he and his family to talk about what was going on, which was the most important thing.” Dunn now refers many of his terminally ill patients to Sister Vivian. He recommends the therapy not only as a means of relieving pain and anxiety, but also as a way to treat the emotional suffering that dying patients experience.

“You can do these same things with psychology, but here you can do it with a few strings of a harp,” Dunn says. The harp is the instrument of choice for music-thanatologists, and its most important quality is its resonance. The instrument’s 30 plus strings build a soothing sound that lingers in the room. Similar effects can be created on a piano or a guitar, but a Steinway is not exactly portable, and even a 12-string guitar can’t match a harp’s depth of sound. “For some people, certain instruments can hurt their ears, but for most people the harp can be very soothing,” says Janet Naylor, a professional harpist. She is not affiliated with Strings of Compassion, but she does volunteer to play for patients in nursing homes.

Barbara Eicher, a chaplain at Sacred Heart, was familiar with Strings of Compassion, but it wasn’t until her mother, Harriet Scott, fell ill with pneumonia earlier this year that she got a firsthand look at the program.

Eicher asked Sister Vivian to perform a vigil for her mother, who was living in a nearby care facility. “It seemed to just calm her and slow her breathing down and kind of ease the struggle,” Eicher says. “I wasn’t sure how receptive she would be, because she’s a pretty headstrong kind of person, but it really relaxed her. “It just made for a very special and closed moment.” In March, Patricia Casey’s mother, Mary Rooney, suffered a massive stroke. The decision to experience a vigil with Sister Vivian was not a difflcult one for Casey, who was the only family member at her mother’s bedside.

Photo Caption:
Sister Vivian Ripp pushes her portable, 22-pound lever harp through a corridor of Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“I thought it sounded great,” Casey says, describing her first impressions. “What a peaceful thing to do.” Although her mother was in a coma, Casey says she could sense the treatment was helping. And not only did it prepare her mother for the experience of death, but it soothed Casey’s own fears. “You’re totally helpless. There’s nothing you can do,” Casey says. “I think it made the journey a lot easier, and it made it a lot easier for me to see it happen.”

“She had a look of peace and serenity.”

Music-thanatology can provide relief from mental anxiety, physical pain and emotional suffering, but one of its most powerful benefits is simply the fact that it provides temporary escape from the sterile hospital environment, from the sound of gurneys rolling, televisions droning and life support machines pumping. “Our bodies are primarily fluid, so all of the sounds around us are impacting us subtly,” Sister Vivian says. “The computer, the television, the air conditioner - all of these sounds are influencing our physiology.”

Officials at the Providence Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Portland believe music-thanatology works. Both hospitals have hired a staff music-thanatologist, and both plan to implement programs of their own this summer after consulting with Sacred Heart.

One of the most important lessons the hospitals took away from the Eugene program is the need to inform people about the treatment ahead of time, says Sister Kathleen Kircher, a member of the pastoral care department at Providence Medical Center.

“Part of what (the therapists) will be doing is educating people about what music-thanatology is and how does it benefit the dying patient,” Kircher says. “You need to educate people at all levels - your physicians, your surgeons, your housekeepers, and your pharmacists - so that everybody feels like they’re a part of it.”

Music-thanatology is still a long way from mainstream medicine, but Sister Vivian and other are hopeful the treatment will someday earn the same respect as more traditional forms of therapy.

And there is the hope that programs such as Strings of Compassion will cause people to re-examine how they think about the dying. “The dying can teach us how to live in the most dramatic way,” Sister Vivian says. “When you’re with the dying, what is essential becomes clear - relationships, belief, hope and quality of life.”

For more information about the Sacred Heart program, call 6857402.
Reporter Lewis Taylor can be reached by phone at 3392512 or by e-mail at Ltaylor AT guardnet DOT com

© Copyright 2001, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
Reprinted with permission.



Created: April 22, 2001     Last updated: August 14, 2008

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