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Northport Woman Treats End-of-Life Patients to ‘Peaceful, Soothing’ Music

Micky Bedell
Bangor Daily News
Barbara Jean O'’Brien plays her harp at her Northport home on Tuesday. O’'Brien is the only certified music-thanatologist in the state, creating responsive or prescriptive music for people in the stages leading up to the end of life.";

By Shelby Hartin, Bangor Daily News

Penelope Wolfe’s mother had been battling dementia for nearly eight years when she had a stroke in May 2013.

She was transferred to a nursing home, and her health steadily declined. Wolfe and her family watched, helplessly, as their mother slowly faded.

But Wolfe didn’t want things to end that way.

She knew a woman named Barbara Jean O’Brien, a harpist who was her church’s musician at the time. O’Brien, a resident of Northport, is the only certified music-thanatologist in the state. Wolfe asked if she would provide her services for her mother.

“Music-thanatology is a process of creating responsive or prescriptive music for people in the stages leading up to the end of life,” O’Brien said.

It wasn’t long before O’Brien was in the room, crafting a music vigil for Wolfe’s mother.

“She began to play, and she sang as well. It was the most peaceful, soothing experience,” Wolfe said. “It was not just for my mother but for everybody who was in the room.”

Everything became very still and calm. All eyes were focused on Wolfe’s mother. There was no way to tell whether she could hear the music, but something told Wolfe her mother knew it was for her.

“There was a sense that she could hear it because there was an attentiveness of her being,” Wolfe said.

O’Brien does not enter patients’ rooms to put on a production. Her work is very focused, starting first with the gathering of important information about patients’ health from caregivers and family members.

Family members and patients, if they’re responsive, are informed of O’Brien’s purpose and encouraged to make themselves comfortable. Then the music vigil, which can last from 45 minutes to over an hour, begins.

“We create a foundation for the music that’s in relation to the breath,” O’Brien explained.

O’Brien uses the harp, a polyphonic and portable instrument, and her own voice — the tools used by all music-thanatologists — at the bedside of patients during the end stages of their life. The prescriptive music responds to the physiological needs of the patient. For example, O’Brien will observe heart rate, respiration and temperature, providing music unique to each patient.

“Every person is going to respond differently to any musical approach, so we pay very careful attention to the body,” O’Brien said. “Any movements of the limbs, the facial expression, moisture on the skin, the temperature of the skin — we pay very close attention.”

O’Brien uses rhythm, pacing, volume and tone to create something completely different for each patient, making music that truly is tailored to the needs of the person in that particular moment of their life.

“We don’t go in with a song list. It’s like a tool bag,” she said.

The harp has become an instrumental part of O’Brien’s life and work and has touched the lives of many others. As O’Brien sits in her own home, away from patients, hospitals and nursing homes, the music that flows from her harp is beautiful and hypnotic. It is not music-thanatology in this moment because she’s not playing for a patient, yet the sounds still seem to make time stand still.

Even though O’Brien is able to offer this service to families, there are many things she cannot do.

“I can’t change what’s going on,” she said. “I’m not there as a medical technician. I’m not trying to cure.” But for many families, including Wolfe’s, and nurses, such as Maureen Morse, curing and healing are two very different things.

Credit Micky Bedell / Bangor Daily News
Barbara Jean O'’Brien plays her harp at her Northport home on Tuesday. O’'Brien is the only certified music-thanatologist in the state, creating responsive or prescriptive music for people in the stages leading up to the end of life.

“It doesn’t cure their medical malady like cancer or Parkinson’s or heart failure, but you can heal other things,” Morse, a nurse at Pen Bay Medical Center, said. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, Morse believes O’Brien’s music helps prepare patients and their families for death.

“A lot of times during this process you just run out of things to say. There are no more words,” O’Brien said of the end-of-life process. “The end of someone’s life can be very isolating. Your whole identity is slipping away, piece by piece by piece.”

Part of her goal as a music-thanatologist is to help families reconnect with their loved one and continue a relationship until the very end.

“It can deepen connections and hold them together as they prepare for the next step,” she said. “I feel like it really exploits the incredible power of music in a way that’s so profound. It’s amazing work. The power of music to be assisting in people’s lives when they’re in such a fragile, vulnerable time is a powerful gift.”

As a nurse, Morse has watched families grapple with end-of-life care.

“I think the hard part is getting people to accept where their loved one is,” Morse said.

Once they have accepted that, Morse said families begin to consider other options to make the end of their loved one’s life as comfortable as possible.

“I had never heard the word ‘thanatology’ before,” Morse said. Morse, who has an interest in hospice nursing and hopes to do it in the future, was fascinated by the concept and has watched O’Brien work.

“When she comes into the room she melts into the harp. The presence is the music and the harp. She doesn’t interject herself,” Morse said.

“They’re just looking for something that’s peaceful and calm. … They just want the music to carry them out,” she said.

O’Brien, who has degrees in music and philosophy, never imagined her studies would one day come together to lead her on this path. She learned about music-thanatology from her husband, who was away for a work conference and shared with her what he learned about it from a presenter.

“I had been looking for a way to use music in a more intimate way,” O’Brien said. “I wanted another venue, and this felt like it might be it.”

Although O’Brien has been learning the practice of music-thanatology for several years, she learns something new with every patient she visits.

“I will be a beginner at this for a long time,” O’Brien said. “It’s going to be a lifelong learning curve.”

Morse generally gets feedback from family after a music vigil has been held and has been told by many that it’s one of the nicest things that could have been done for patients at the end of their life.

Wolfe remembers the music vigil O’Brien held for her mother, and she holds onto it.

The day after the vigil, Wolfe’s mother died.

“It was a beautiful way to exit this life,” she said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.