GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A group of volunteer singers and musicians aim to either entertain or comfort patients at Valley View Hospital, depending on the patients’ circumstances, and has been doing so for approximately a decade, according to the group’s founder and director, radiation/oncology nurse Lesa Russo.
Aside from the personal satisfaction she and the other volunteers get from the work, Russo said, the practice is spreading to other hospitals and institutions in Colorado and beyond, where once Valley View was the only hospital in the state that was engaged in this approach.
“It is a movement, kind of,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “And I’m proud to say we were the first hospital in Colorado to do it.”
It is a two-phase approach, said Russo, one phase of which involves a group of about 40 volunteer musicians and performers known as Holistic Harmony who, singly or in partnerships, perform songs, skits and other entertainment in the open, public spaces of the hospital as well as in the rooms of non-terminal patients, said Russo.
The goal, she said, is to break up the monotony of hospital living and bring a little distraction and fun into the lives of the patients and their loved ones.
“We sing and laugh and have fun,” she said of the musicians and performers, noting that she plays the guitar and sings to patients whenever she can.
“Their purpose is entertainment and diversion for the patients,” she said, adding that the Holistic Harmony group can meet several times a week when called upon.
The second part of the effort is a choral group, Harmony Chorus, which she formed about seven years ago. The chorus typically meets once a week at the hospital to visit the rooms of terminally ill cancer patients and others, whose families often are gathered around in hushed and apprehensive moods.
“We are invited into these people’s sacred spaces,” she said of the choral group, which she described as a “threshold choir, for people who are crossing the threshold into death. We are there to provide support at the bedside of people who are dying, terminal patients.
“We walk into the room with reverence,” Russo continued. “We create an atmosphere that’s safe for them [patients and their stricken families]. Sometimes we teach them these very simple a capella songs, and they can sing them together after we leave to comfort the patients and comfort themselves.”
In addition to visiting rooms at VVH, she said, the chorus goes into area nursing homes and even to patients’ homes, in partnership with hospice.
Russo, who was a hospice nurse with Hospice In The Valley prior to signing on with VVH and has worked as a personal trainer, said Thursday that she started coming up with ways to expand the hospital’s non-medical interaction with patients as soon as she started the job about a dozen years ago.
Her first creation, she said, was a fitness program for senior patients, known as the Yampah Yahoos, held at the Glenwood Springs Community Center in partnership with the hospital.
About 10 years ago, Russo said, the hospital asked her to start a music program to benefit patients.
“What we started with was a music cart,” she recalled, describing a hand-made cart donated to the hospital and stuffed with donated CDs and small, portable CD players, which were handed out to patients who wanted them.
Into the rooms
“Then I said, why don’t we bring live music into the hospital,” Russo said. “It initially met with some resistance [from the hospital administration], because nobody does that [performing in patients’ rooms].” In most places, she said, the singers or musicians stick to performances in the lobby.
But she persevered, mining the local live music scene for volunteers and performing an introductory concert herself in the facility’s former outdoor courtyard, to introduce the program to staff and the public.
She has a number of stories from the work, but she spoke about one in particular that happened during that introductory concert, involving a terminally ill cancer patient who happened by and heard Russo singing an old John Prine song, “Hello In There,” about aging and loss.
The woman approached Russo after the song, told her it had touched her deeply and revealed that she needed to let go of the treatments and meet her fate in a more familiar environment.
“She opted to go home, and she died a couple of weeks later,” Russo said quietly, adding that following the woman’s death her family donated a piano to the VVH music program.
Within a year, she said, the program had grown from simple concerts in the lobby to visits to patients’ rooms, “and now I’ve got 40 musicians in the program. And not only is it a good experience for the patients, but also for the musicians. They tell me, ‘This is the most important thing I do.’ And now, whenever I approach a musician to come to the hospital for a visit, they never turn me down.”
Given that the two aspects of the music program at VVH are “completely different” in many ways, Russo said, “But either way, it’s such an honor” to be so personally, intimately involved at such times.
“The patient often doesn’t realize what stresses they’re under,” she explained. “So often when we come in, before long they’re in tears. It’s just magical, what emotions can come out in a room. With the music program it’s generally uplifting. With the chorus, it’s generally somber.”
“The patient often doesn’t realize what stresses they’re under. So often when we come in, before long they’re in tears. It’s just magical, what emotions can come out in a room. With the music program it’s generally uplifting. With the chorus, it’s generally somber.”