Live at Sinai: The Healing Power of Music

17 Jan


Music, after writing, is my greatest passion. But when I entered the hospital in June 2011 for induction chemotherapy, I stopped listening to music altogether.

Music, the saying goes, can soothe even the savage beast. What about the frail beast? The sad one?

Between the hospital walls, hearing my favorite songs filled me with a deep, unbearable ache. Music, and the memories attached to them, reminded me of all that was no longer. It reminded me of myself at 16, lugging my 30-lb. double bass up the steps of the Lincoln Center subway station in five-inch heels en route to my lessons at Juilliard. Where had that feisty, fresh-faced music student with long auburn hair gone?

I didn’t know it back in June, but I was in the process of mourning my ‘old’ self: on some level, I was realizing that everything had changed–that my life, as I knew it, was over.

How many ‘selves’ do we put to rest over the course of a lifetime? It was strange for such recent memories to feel like they belonged in an old filing cabinet.

Almost four weeks into my hospitalization, I reached the height of my despair, frustration, and anger. I couldn’t help but see the world in the binary: everyone out there is moving forward, and I’m in here, in an oncology ward, stuck in place.

I was in an especially somber mood. The week before, I had lost all of my hair. (It doesn’t all “fall out” at once–some of it does, and the rest you have to yank out with your hands. It felt like my scalp was a garden and I was pulling weeds from damp soil.) I was also suffering from mucositis, a painful side effect of chemotherapy that causes inflammation and ulceration of the throat, mouth, and digestive tract. I could barely eat or talk.

Then, on June 25, 2011, something magical happened. My friend Jon Batiste, an internationally acclaimed jazz musician whom I’d first met at a music camp as a teenager, came to visit me in the hospital. To my surprise, he showed up with his entire band (aptly named ‘The Stay Human Band’), made up of tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika, alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash, and drummer Joe Saylor.

It was a new concert venue for the band, not to mention for Mount Sinai Hospital (no lighters allowed). But in some ways it was more suited to a concert than anywhere else. Hospitals ache for music. Oncology wards, more than anywhere else I know, are music-less places. Instead of melody, there is constant beeping. Instead of singing, there is the steady medical call-and-response loop: nurses hollering to each other; patients calling, sometimes screaming, for their doctors; nurses scrambling to find the doctors; visitors searching frantically for nurses. Then, there are times when you hear nothing at all. In some ways, the diverse noises of a hospital–however annoying–remind us that the hospital “machine” is in healthy operation. It’s the silent moments, the hollow sounds of quiet suffering, that can be most startling. These are the noises of healthcare.

Jon, Ibanda, Eddie and Joe were purveyors of the music of health. As the sound of Jon’s harmonabord filled the hallways, nurses and patients filtered out of their rooms. The patients who could walk, walked. Those who couldn’t were wheeled to their doorways. Others listened from their beds. Every inch of the 25-room floor was filled with music (I even worried we might receive a noise complaint).

Timidly at first, and then with jubilation, patients, nurses, and medical staff began to dance and clap their hands. The oncology ward was breathing a sigh of relief, its inhabitants rejoicing in a temporary timeout, losing themselves to the beauty and healing power of the music.

The saints had marched in (they played that song, too).

Check out this amazing short video of the Stay Human Band playing at Mount Sinai Hospital on June 25, 2011:

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11 Responses to “Live at Sinai: The Healing Power of Music”

  1. Susan Ayari January 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Again, Susu, you’ve found a way to explain your experience that cuts to the quick without being maudlin or frightening. Thank you. What a gift the Stay Human Band brought to Mt. Sinai! At the same time, what a gift you must have given Jon, way back when you were a kid, for him to have maintained a relationship with you into adulthood. Testimony to your spirit and intelligence.

  2. Ethna McKiernan January 18, 2012 at 12:22 am #

    Suleika, both your post and the amazing music video were incredibly beautiful and triumphant! I can’t imagine how wonderful that music was in the hospital for all. “Joy can happen again…” Yes.
    I believe it can.

  3. Marion Poncet January 18, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    Tout simplement magique!

    Merci pour ce magnifique blog qui nous permet de remettre beaucoup de choses en question, nous donne matière à réflexion /méditation.
    Tu nous offres une belle leçon de vie et c’est avec un immense plaisir que je lis chacun de tes articles.
    Plein d’énergie!
    Merci! 🙂

  4. Camille January 18, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    De gros frissons à la lecture de cette expérience… merci de partager les bons moments aussi 🙂
    Je t’embrasse,

  5. Josh January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m crying……beautiful.

  6. Judy Sugarman January 19, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Thanks Suleika! Beautifully expressed (as usual). I think the healing of music washes over us even when we are most unwilling. Regardless of religious or non-religious beliefs, what could be more devotional than song?!?

    Keep the faith, Dear Susu. Healing hugs from me to you! xoxoxoxoxo
    BTW, if your family needs a place to stay (for free) my apartment is always available and I can stay at my sister’s. Please keep it in mind. You know how to reach me.

  7. Michael January 22, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Inspirational, thank you. Today, you provided a new direction of hope . I’m grateful for you generosity. Hugs to you! 🙂

  8. Candida Abrahamson PhD February 24, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    This is not just beautifully written–it’s a totally fascinating topic. I started looking into research on it, just peripherally, but it seems there is science-based evidence for the healing power of music. I guess you don’t need the research–you know it in your soul. May it keep providing healing for you, Candida

  9. Kathryn Taiaroa March 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    I have just found your blog and am loving your Good! Authentic and spot on..well done and thanks so much for sharing. My husband has Synovial sarcoma and so often in the last few years have I thought exactly the stuff you are writing about. Making it accessible is a gift from you to the world who needs to hear it.Wishing you every best.Kat Taiaroa

    • suleikajaouad March 4, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

      Thanks, Kat — you made my day! So glad to hear you’re finding the blog helpful. Best wishes to you and your husband.

  10. Scarpetta May 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    I had a friend in the hospital for about five weeks on total bed rest. Some friends and I brought trivia to the room, but like trivia at a bar. We brought a projector, screen, had teams, snacks. It was great. The medical staff was cool about it, but they were also a little annoyed. I think this is totally backwards, and we lifted her spirits a lot that day which must in some small way contribute positively to her health.

    Anyways, I love your blog. You are a great writer. I’m wishing you much strength and good health.

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