Welcome to my Blog

This Blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences as a music therapist and human being working with people at the end of their lives in hospice. In my experience I have seen some amazing things- things that have given me a glimse of something bigger. I have learned that in our suffering, in our doubt, there is also room for beauty and a deeper sense of the divine. Music taps into the rhythms of the earth and at the same time transcends it. I want to share my experiences from the past and from each day moving forward. Hopefully one or two people will find it interesting. Please visit my Web-sites at http://www.nielsenmtbc.com/ or http://www.musictherapycd.com/

Please note that I take client confidentiality very seriously. Names and sometimes other details have been changed to protect the identities of my clients.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Unbroken Circle

The following is part of an article I wrote for a Ridgeview Medical Center newsletter published in 2005. It was one of many experiences that has taught me God truly works in mysterious ways, that we are not the ones in control, and that there is an order larger than we can possibly understand.

One day I was contacted by an RN who was caring for a dying patient who had recently returned home from Mayo Clinic, having been unresponsive for over a week. He had said his goodbyes to friends and families, but seemed to have a hard time letting go. She and the family thought that it would be beneficial to have me play some music to assist him in finding a feeling of peace and support him as he made his final transition.

As I entered his home I noticed his family was gathered around his bedside in his living room. His wife, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, and friends were all gathered. When I asked the type of music he liked the best, his family said, "Country, Johnny Cash is his favorite singer". They also explained that he had a strong Christian faith background. After searching my memory for an appropriate Johnny Cash song to play in this setting, I thought of the old Carter family song, “ Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. This is a song that deals with death and the next life.
I pulled up a chair next to the patient’s bedside, adjusted my guitar in my lap, quietly shared my name and that I was going to sing for him. With the family encircling the bed and his wife seated next to him holding his hand, I began to play the guitar and he began to move. At first he raised an eyebrow, then he moved his head slightly toward me. I looked down and noticed his feet move slightly. When I began to sing the song, the corner of his mouth raised into a small smile. Then his eyes opened and he began to look around to his family gathered around. He squeezed his wife's hand. When the second verse came, he began to move his mouth to the words and sing. After the second verse and refrain, he began to close his eyes again and lay back into his pillow. I sensed a change and repeated the first verse and refrain. We all observed him take his final peaceful breath as I played the last chord. Although this was a sad time, it was truly a surprise and miracle to all of us!

After paging the nurse to return, the family asked to sing "Amazing Grace" and a few other hymns. It was a privilege to be part of this special event and it was so affirming of how music and spirituality are so integrally connected, and such an integral part of life.

The family requested that I play "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" at the funeral. Afterward, they gave me a small plaque in appreciation of my performance. I'm not sure why, but I placed the plague in the visor of my van that day and forgot about it.

A year later, I had my own personal health crisis. After many tests in Minneapolis, my doctors decided that I needed to have inpatient testing and evaluation done at Mayo Clinic. I was quite worried about the process and possible outcome. I was afraid that I myself might die or end up with a serious disability. I arrived early in the morning and I parked in the monstrous parking ramp. I was anxiously searching for something before going in to be admitted. As I pulled down the visor, the plaque fell onto the passenger seat. At that moment I felt a sense of peace and assurance that I really needed. It was as if God had just put a comforting hand on my shoulder. I stopped and re-read that plaque right there:

I said a prayer for you today
And know God must have heard.
I felt the answer in my heart
Although he spoke no word
I asked for happiness for you
In all things great and small,
But it was for his loving care
I prayed the most of all.

I looked up and at that very moment the sun was rising.
I somehow knew in that moment that everything was going to be all right.
That plaque helped to give me strength and reminded me that I was not alone during my time there. I found it to be very reassuring to have it with me during this difficult time in my life. This experience serves as a reminder to me that the care we give in hospice means something far more than we can understand and that sometimes in life our own caring and compassion for others can be returned in unexpected ways. That is one circle will never be broken.


Lyrics to Will The Circle be Unbroken that I used that day:

There are love ones in their glory, whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story, will you join them in their bliss.

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord by and by
In a better home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

In the glorious days of childhood, oft they told of wondrous love.
Pointed to the dying Saviour, now they dwell with him above.

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord by and by
In a better home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

You can picture happy gatherings by the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings, when they left you here below.

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord by and by
In a better home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why I'm doing this.

In my time as a music therapist in hospice, I've experienced some amazing things and met some amazing people. This spiritual journey forced me to question and then to deepen my faith. I don't claim to have the answers, but I have even more questions as the path unfolds. In times of great suffering I have seen great wonders. I have seen joy in the midst of sorrow, laughter in the midst of tears, comfort in the midst of pain, and healing even when a cure is not possibe.

I never cease to be amazed at the power of music and I want to share that. I want to share the way doing this job has changed me. I also hope to broaden the understanding of both hospice and music therapy.

I've decided to start this blog after encouragement from many people. Several people have encouraged me to write a book about the things I've experienced. I may do that one day, but at this time in my life that seems like a more distant goal. I plan to write about both past and present experiences here. I hope you will find it interesting. Thanks for visiting. I hope you will return.

Please note: I take client confidentiality very seriously. Names and sometimes places have been changed in order to protect the identity of my clients.

First Steps

It's hard to know where to begin....
I had always loved music, but was not sure what to do with it. When I was in my early 20's I went to school for music and stopped after two years because I really didn't really feel teaching music was the right thing for me. I spent time doing gigs at night and working in home health for children, and in group homes for the developmentally delayed. In that work I was always amazed be the way my clients would respond to music. I still was not really aware of music therapy. A few years later I started nursing school. Then a child, a very brave, very wise child, came into my life. When I met Luke, he was 4 years old. He had pretty severe cerebral palsy and a smile that could melt your heart. The cerebral palsy caused difficulty in controlling his muscles and would cause painful muscle spasms. I had a hard time understanding his happiness despite his struggles and difficulties. He had never really known another way of life and he was determined he would succeed. Luke taught me so much about life, courage, suffering, healing, and kindness.

Luke's cerebral palsy made walking extremely difficult. A physical therapist would come to the house to work with him in learning to use a walker. Luke tried very hard to walk, but it was very difficult. Then one day when he was 5 he said to me, "I can't do it" with tears in his eyes. He had never seemed to give up on anything until that moment.

The next day I had an idea. I brought a drum the next day the physical therapist came. I said, "Luke, don't worry about walking. Do you think you could march?" He had a puzzled look for a minute, then smiled and said "yes". The physical therapist got Luke standing with the walker. I began to play a march rhythm. Luke began to get a smile on his face. I watched as the muscles in his legs began moving in time with the music and he swayed with the beat. Then a moment that would change both our lives happened. He took a first step- then another. He picked his knees up and he marched---- for 30 feet! These were his first independent steps without someone holding on to his hands and arms. I knew instantly that everything I had thought was important as a musician was not- no performance for even thousands of people could ever compare to this moment. Music could do so much more than I ever imagined.

I began to do more music with Luke- singing, drumming, moving to music, and it had a profound effect. Through the process Luke was teaching me. In seeing the effect the music had on their child, his parents decided to research music therapy. They found a music therapist for him. I went with to Luke's second session and observed. Watching the therapist work and the way she used music to meet this child's needs, I realized that I had just found what I was meant to do.

The next day I met with an advisor at my nursing school. Out of the blue she asked me, "Have you ever thought about going into music therapy?" I realized at that moment the universe was not being subtle. God was calling and made it very clear to me what it was I needed to do. Within a month I had dropped nursing school, and began coursework at Augsburg College in music therapy. Just as Luke had taken his first steps, so had I.

I had know idea where this journey would take me.