Volunteer ‘angel’ plays music to ease pain, give comfort

Volunteer plays gentle, melodic music to soothe patients
December 16th, 2015

Walking down the hall on Memorial Hospital North’s fifth floor, visitors hear an unusual sound. Not an alarm, or a beeping machine, but notes of live music – a gentle, melodic tune.

In the dimly lit room, an elderly patient lies curled in a semi-fetal position, relaxed and content.

Volunteer Karen Bragado plays the harp for patients, often those who are in pain or who need soothing.

At the foot of the bed, a woman sits, playing a harp. It’s a serene, comforting scene.

Volunteer Karen Bragado does this twice a week – and it’s a far cry from her day job. With a master’s degree in procurement and acquisitions management, she’s been reviewing contracting files for the U.S. Air Force for 32 years.

Working from home with flexible hours gives her the ability to volunteer.

She has always loved music, plays the piano and has played the violin, too. A few years ago, some friends rented her a harp and found her a teacher as a birthday gift.

“They knew it was on my bucket list,” she said.

She fell in love with the new instrument. Then she discovered she could get her certification from the MHTP – Music for Healing and Transition Program – and help others while indulging in her newfound passion.

“The whole program takes about three years, including 45 hours of playing time as a volunteer,” she said.  Now she has CMP after her name: certified music practitioner.

Bragado wants to be clear: “We are not music therapists. Music therapists have a bachelor’s degree in it. We are just certified.” MHTP professionally trains and certifies students to provide live therapeutic music but does not require a bachelor’s degree.

Though she plays the harp, some CMPs play flutes, dulcimers, guitars, or other portable instruments.

As a CMP, “You learn to play for patients with different issues. Some play at hospitals, some at nursing homes or hospice care centers. It depends on who hires you,” Bragado said.

Yes, she’s a volunteer now, but some day she could get paid for it – a second career, if you will.

“The ultimate goal [for many CMPs] is to play in hospitals and actually be on staff.”  A lot of medical facilities use CMPs now, she added.

Bragado has been playing for patients for about a year and a half at Memorial Central and Memorial North – usually on Tuesdays and Fridays. Often on request.

“I believe volunteering is a huge part of what we do,” she said.  That being said, she would love to be hired as a CMP, but added that she will probably continue volunteering until that happens.

Her visits are coordinated with the Volunteer Services Department, and she tends to go to floors, like the cancer floor, where people are in a lot of pain.

Her first stop is the nurses’ station, and now that they know her, they often recommend certain patients who might appreciate some soothing music. Then she approaches the patient and takes her guidance from them. Some say “thank you” after she plays one song. Others don’t want her to leave. She’s stayed as long as two hours for one patient.

“Once the nurses know what I do, they look for patients who might benefit, and they say it makes things so much better when I’m there,” she said.

Bragado recently played for a brain trauma patient who had not been able to sleep. After she was there a while, the patient fell asleep. Bragado wasn’t offended – she was thrilled.

“It was very cool,” she said.

Bragado plays a Celtic lever harp, which has no pedals, so it’s more portable than a full-size harp. She performs different types of music for different situations. Though she does not play classical or religious music, she does play “familiar songs and what I call harp music … or new age-style music.”

The tempo and selections vary by situation – joyful for a patient who’s going home, and soothing for a patient in distress.

“You have to watch the patient to see what they need – if it doesn’t seem like it’s working, you can change the music,” she said.

Sometimes she gets requests, what she and other CMPs call “stump the harpist.” A popular request is “Greensleeves,” which she has added to her repertoire.

She’s also careful to stay out of the way of nurses, doctors, and other medical staff – but often when she offers to leave a room, they ask her to stay. So she does.

The bottom line is, “It relaxes patients, and it helps facilitate the healing,” she said. “Music is a powerful thing.”

Are patients startled to see a woman playing a harp at their bedside? No, though some do think she’s an angel for doing so.

“One patient did say to me, ‘Oh, I’m not ready for you, yet.’”

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.