Healing Arts

If you believe it is just a coincidence that one of the icons of the health care professions, Florence Nightingale, shares a name with a songbird, Brenau music professor Barbara Steinhaus suggests you may want to rethink your position.

Dr. Barbara Steinhaus once visited a hospital patient who was recovering from a tracheotomy and suffering from dementia.

“When I entered the room, the drapes were drawn,” says the chair of Brenau’s music department. “The patient’s neck bent backwards, so she was looking at the ceiling. She made no response to my coming into the room.”

Then, in her lyric soprano that has earned so many ovations at campus concerts, Steinhaus sang the old gospel hymn Precious Memories.

“While I sang, the patient took large breaths twice at the place one would take a breath to sing the next phrase,” Steinhaus noted. “At the end of the hymn, the patient’s companion went to the bedside and asked her if she had liked it. The patient took her hand and nodded. I was so startled and moved by the patient’s reaction that I began to cry.”

Steinhaus, an expert in gospel music, knew she was on the right track in her latest research interest: delving into the role the arts play in the healing sciences. Having recently earned certification in this emerging field at the University of Florida, she has taken the lead on developing the discipline at Brenau – an ideal fit for Brenau’s liberal arts traditions and recent emphasis on health care professions preparation. Her undergraduate course, called “Introduction to Arts in Health Care,” guides health science students into applying music, drawing, dance, creative writing and drama to various health care disciplines. The course is available to all liberal arts majors, many of whom are looking for practical applications for their studies. The course began in the fall term with 11 students – two in music and music education, and the rest in nursing, occupational therapy, biology and psychology.

Dr. Steinhaus Music Therapy
Dr. Barbara Steinhaus reaches out to Linda Vandiver at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Steinhaus has been volunteering at the hospital and offering her skills as a singer to patients who would like to hear a song.

Steinhaus’s work is informed by Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl that chronicles his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II and describes his psychotherapeutic method for coping with that unspeakable horror. However, there also exists a growing body of clinical studies that offer evidence of the salutary effects of the arts on anxiety and depression, fatigue, mobility, cognitive function and lung function. Moreover, according to a recent report on National Public Radio in connection with a top medical journal’s publication of a new study, the idea of integrating music therapy into health care goes back at least to the days of Florence Nightingale in the early 20th century. The recent research, headed by Dr. Catherine Meads at Brunel University in London, suggests that music played for patients before, during and after surgery eases surgical pain, blunts anxiety and reduces recovery times. Most notably, Meads says, patients listening to music used significantly less pain medication. Her study demonstrated that, on average, music helped the patients drop two notches on the 10-point pain scale – the same level of relief typically reported with a dose of painkilling medicine.

When Steinhaus approached Dr. Gale Starich with her ideas for creating a course at Brenau, the dean of health sciences saw benefits for Brenau students as well as their prospective patients.
“A lot of our students are so focused on math and science that they don’t have time to explore the art of healing – and it definitely is an art,” Starich says, adding that she sings in Brenau’s Spectrum Choir as part of her personal therapy. “The burnout rates in any of these frontline professions is so high that finding ways to fortify yourself through artistic expression is important. Art taps into that most human part of yourself, and any time you can connect that part of yourself with your patients, it’s meaningful, especially to patients who are dying.”

Although the course will definitely apply the arts to “the healing arts,” it is ironically more about the science that undergirds all aspects.

“When people are able to express what is meaningful to them, they enter a psychological state known as a ‘flow state’ which causes their immune system to rise in strength,” Steinhaus explains. Steinhaus encourages her students to develop creative outlets of their own, but she emphasizes that a health care practitioner need not possess the exceptional abilities of a Pavarotti or a van Gogh to use the methods she will teach. “Ability of that kind has nothing to do with it, really,” she says, explaining that the primary goal of the so-called “medical humanities” is to develop ways of kindling sparks in patients to trigger memories and positive associations that relieve stress, soothe trauma and engage communication. “We want to get those survival juices going,” she says. One of the exercises Steinhaus plans is for students to enact a dramatic reading of Wit, a powerful one-act play about breast cancer from the point of view of an acerbic patient.

“The arts are a portal to an enhanced quality of life for everyone,” Steinhaus says, “including both the healers and the patients.”

2 Responses to “Healing Arts”
  1. Carolyn Goddard says:

    This is so beautiful. Christian Music and the reading of Scripture are such powerful instruments that bring comfort and peace to suffering souls. I have given CD’s to friends who were in the end stages of cancer and their families later told me how much it meant to their loved one. Their countenance would change when they listened to familiar Christian songs that they once were able to sing.
    This could be a wonderful ministry in every hospital. I have a granddaughter who is an Oncology RN in another state and she also has a beautiful voice. I plan to forward this to her. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Joseph Napoli says:

    Barbara, Thank you so much for including the link. It is inspiring to think that our musical art can be used in ways other than entertainment. Often I am told by my singers when they get to rehearsal that they are worn out from the work day. When they leave after two hours of intense practice they say they feel invigorated and alive from the music. Keep doing what you are doing and do more of it. Blessings on you.


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