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The Music Is The Medicine: A Musician’s Mission To Heal

Andrew Schulman
Jim Levulis
Andrew Schulman

Being in a hospital intensive care unit is unsettling to say the least. Commotion, alarms and PA systems are part of the chaos. So the sounds of a guitar would seem out of place…but are they? WAMC reports on a musician and a doctor who think just the opposite.“I don’t know what an optimal healing environment looks like, but I’m pretty certain it does not look like a modern intensive care unit,” says Dr. Marvin McMillen when describing today’s ICU hospital units.

McMillen is convinced music can help heal critically ill people. He says he’s seen it firsthand in the case of a former patient sitting across the table.

About seven years ago, Andrew Schulman was in a medically induced coma following a surgery for pancreatic cancer at Beth Israel hospital in New York City.

“The doctors had saved my life at first but then medicine couldn’t go any further,” Schulman said. “I was really terminally ill at that point. It’s music that came about because my wife had an epiphany that only music could reach me. It was music through an iPod that actually then saved my life by stabilizing me so the doctors then could do the things that needed to be done which they couldn’t do before then.” 

Schulman says when he came out of the coma and learned what happened, he knew he had some payback to give — his talent as a professional musician.

“It was a couple of weeks later I was on the phone with my mother,” Schulman recalls. “My mother said to me ‘God saved you for a reason.’”

With McMillen’s blessing, Schulman returned to the same ICU, this time with his guitar and the intention to give thanks.

“Towards the end of the session when I wasn’t even going to bedsides, I was just sitting near the nurses’ station putting music in the air, the two nurses who took care of me the day I came out of the coma were both standing on either side of me,” Schulman said. “I saw them looking at the patients, then looking up at the computer monitor showing their vital signs and then they looked at each other and they both nodded. It was in that moment I got it. I think I just found a new thing that I’m going to be doing in my life in music.”

Now, Schulman has followed McMillen about 150 miles north to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

“Marvin, do you want ‘McMillen and Schulman’ or ‘Schulman and McMillen,’” Schulman joked.

For a few days every month Schulman goes to ICU bedsides at BMC to play. Though he does take requests, Schulman says Bach, Gershwin and the Beatles are the most effective for critical patients. Fitted with an ID badge and a paid position, Schulman is officially a member of the hospital’s surgery department. And McMillen says this not some entertainment stunt.

“The data that’s coming in from functional MRI studies and a number of musicology groups around the world are really suggesting that music is much more than adaptive speech,” McMillen said. “Much more of the brain is activated. The information initially comes in in the parts of the brain close to where blood pressure, heart rate and wellbeing are regulated. The involvement is much greater than we ever expected it to be or what I was taught in medical school 40 years ago.”

The two men plan to start a program teaching professional musicians to play specifically in ICUs. That’s where Schulman says his work differs from music therapy, practiced throughout history and a field in which you can attain college degrees. Schulman will be the program’s music director and McMillen the medical director. McMillen says Schulman has taken his life experience to transcend into the stressful and unsettling environment of an ICU.

“All of our normative ways of doing things are kicked out from under us and then this guy shows up who has been through it himself, is a very skillful guitarist and his only agenda is to find a connection to the patient and the family members with this tool that can engage their brain in a very, very powerful way,” said McMillen. 

Schulman has written a book titled Waking The Spirit: A Musicians Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul for which McMillen penned the afterword. It’s being released August 2. A chapter title describes how Schulman feels when he sees a person improve while he’s playing.

“Better than a standing ovation,” said Schulman.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org