Music therapy brings different tone to health care

Music therapy brings different tone to health care
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POSTED: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 9:15pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - 1:23pm

Advances in technology let doctors do amazing things to help their patients recover from injuries and illnesses. But more and more, they are finding that a simple tune can have a powerful impact on a person's health.

Baton Rouge General recently hired Mary Malloy as a full-time music therapist. She says she loved music from an early age, but was not interested in performing or teaching.

"As I was looking through college brochures, there was this thing called music therapy," Malloy recalled, "and it was just, like, 'yep, that's it.'"

Malloy is a licensed music therapist, one of less than 6,000 nationwide. She works with patients of all ages, with both physical and mental health problems.

"Medicine is starting, as a whole, to really look at the bigger picture, as well," she said. "'What's going on with [the patient's] mood? What's going on with their thought processes? What's going on with their family support systems?' Because that all affects how they're going to heal."

For many patients, the emotional toll of recovery gets in the way of their ability to heal. Malloy finds that music helps them process their experience in a different way.

"Music taps into every part of who we are," she said. "It's a physical experience. Our senses; we hear it, we see the instruments, we touch the instruments. It can tap into our emotions, help us feel things or help us express those emotions, sometimes." 

One of Malloy's patients is a young girl, who lights up at the chance to play and have fun. But music therapy is not for everyone.

"Occasionally, I do have people tell me, 'no, I really, I'm not up for that today,'" Malloy stated. "And it's like, 'that's okay. This is your choice, you don't have to do this.'"

"I've sung 'Happy Birthday' to an awful lot of people in the hospital," she added. "And I think that's gotta be a hard thing to do. You know, you don't want to be in the hospital for your birthday."

Music is often a gateway to our past. Certain songs remind people of their parents, their childhood, or times when they were stress-free.

"So we can use that as a tool to help people relax, to help people express their thoughts, express their feelings, and to kind of come at it in a different way," Malloy said. "You know, people tell me, 'gosh, you got here in the nick of time. This was just the right thing today, to help me get through the rest of what's coming.'"

Her soothing presence often impacts the rest of the hospital staff, as well.

"I've had nurses tell me that, 'the unit, everybody just relaxes when you're here, it just gets quieter. People don't call the nurses' station as much.'"

Studies show that pain is both physical and mental in nature. So if playing music for a little while helps a young girl smile, it might help her feel better.

"The more we can do to get them out faster, the better," Malloy said. "And if music helps decrease their pain, then that may lead to less pain medicine. That leads to less time in the hospital. That's a win-win for everybody."

Malloy is part of Baton Rouge General's "Arts in Medicine" program, which started up in 2012 through a grant from the LIVESTRONG Foundation. It also includes painting and other visual arts.

After earning her degree in music therapy, completing a six-month clinical internship, and passing her board exams, she earned a license to practice. She later added an advanced degree in spirituality with an emphasis in psychology.

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