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January 2009 Volume 33 No. 1

Harpist Barbary Grant responds to patient’s call for music.

Music, integrated into patient care, is more than entertainment


Two or three times a year, harp player Verlene Schermer’s pager gets her immediate attention.

“If it’s a call from the chaplain’s office or from a social worker, an end-of-life decision may have been made,” she said. “And I have to get to a patient’s room as soon as I can.”

Schermer will play her double-string harp while family members who have gathered in the room approach the patient’s bed and say their goodbyes. “The music helps to fill the silence and makes it easier for them to speak,” she said. “And it often helps people who have been holding back tears to cry. It helps people release that.”

Like Schermer, Barbary Grant has been playing the 36 strings of her Irish harp at SHC and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital for the past five years. “The adjective we most often hear is ‘soothing’,” Grant said. “I could break my fingers playing Irish jigs, and people would still find it soothing because it’s a harp.”

The two harpists met about 10 years ago at Harpers Hall, a South Bay music group. They are part of a team of six musicians — including harpists Pamela Bowen and Barbra Telynor, and guitarists Jeff Buenz and Jim Nichols — who circulate through the hospitals and respond to calls to play in patient rooms. They provide music at no cost, thanks to generous donors.

“An in-room visit can be as short as 10 minutes…” Grant began. “…if a patient falls asleep,” Schermer finished.

“Or we may play for an hour, if the connection is really going,” Grant added.

Patients typically contact Guest Services to ask for a musician to play in their rooms, or they can dial 8-3333 from within the hospital. Sometimes the referrals come from the house staff. “A nurse will say, ‘My patient’s having a really bad day,’ and she’ll call for music,” Schermer said. “We still knock on the door and ask the patient. We can’t presume and just start playing.”

—Courtesy SHC Office of Communications
by Diane Rogers

Photo: Norbert von der Groeben, Stanford Hospital & Clinics