COLUMBIA, S.C. — Did you sleep last night? Annie Burgard asked gently, looking into Jack Davis’ gray eyes.
Are you in pain?
Feels like I’ve been kicked in the gut, said Davis, 65 and retired from a career in the Air Force. He was clutching his stomach.
Davis has been in and out of Palmetto Health Richland since a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia seven months ago.
Chemotherapy. Remission. Relapse. More chemo.
Now he’s anticipating a stem cell transplant.
Annie had introduced herself earlier in the week, offering to play for him.
I love harp music, he told her.
So Tuesday she settled into a chair at his bedside, resting her harp on the floor among the folds of a flowing batik-print skirt.
It’s not like a concert, she said softly. It’s more like a medicine.
For the next half-hour, the music of Jack Davis’ Roman Catholic upbringing flowed over him. Familiar Latin phrases hovered over fluttering strings.
Kyrie eleison. — Lord, have mercy.
Annie Burgard hummed and harmonized, her harp and voice joining in a lullaby.
Halfway into the visit, Davis’ arms relaxed.
His fingers twitched.
A trace of a smile passed his lips.
Burgard, 53, plays the harp at bedside — for people who are dying, gravely ill or disheartened.
Her job at the Palmetto Health Richland and Baptist hospitals in South Carolina is to provide comfort and ease pain, mostly for hospice patients but also for those like Davis experiencing a health crisis. She sees three to five hospital patients a day and plays weekly at the hospital’s senior-care centers, too.
Five years ago, Burgard was new to Columbia, S.C., and working in a field that was unfamiliar to most at the hospital. She’s one of just two certified music-thanatologists — in the Southeast, uniting music with medicine in end-of-life care.
She applied for a job at the hospital but wasn’t getting anywhere, so she volunteered to play her harp for cancer patients.
Eleanor Whitehead, an oncology nurse now retired from the hospital, went to bat for Burgard after seeing how patients responded to her manner and music, a repertoire addressing their physical, mental and spiritual pain.
But Marty Bridges, then administrator of Baptist, — was unconvinced. “I was a little leery,” he said, “being an ol’ timey hospital administration person. There were only a couple of hospitals in the country doing it.”
When Bridges’ grandmother was admitted to the hospital, another volunteer mentioned it to Burgard. She played, and the administrator felt first-hand the solace of her ministry, not only for his grandmother, but for him and his parents.
“It was just a beautiful thing,” he said.
He hired her.
“I would definitely consider her a healer,” Whitehead said.
“What she does taps into the parts of us that are less accessible and also frequently overlooked in treatment.”
In a hospital setting where doctors and nurses naturally focus on sustaining life, Burgard is attuned to death, nurse manager Carolyn Evans said.
“She somehow synchronizes (with) their breathing, especially with patients in their final stages of life,” Evans said.
As Burgard prepares to play, she tapes a note on the patient’s door with words arranged on a photo of a glowing sunset: “Music vigil in progress. Please enter with gentleness.”
She removes her four-octave harp from its canvas case in the hallway, quickly tuning it before entering.
She shifts chairs so she’s beside the bed, facing the patient. If the television is on, she turns off the sound, switching to a channel with images of nature — streams flowing, snow falling, sunflowers bobbing.
Many of Burgard’s referrals come from hospital chaplains. Nurses, social workers, even doctors suggest patients they would like her to see.
She plays throughout the hospital, customizing her music to the religious beliefs of the patient. While a traditional practice centers on Gregorian chants, she has learned hymns because families request them.
“It’s very holy,” said Burgard’s supervisor, the Rev. Irene Albritton, director of chaplaincy and pastoral education. “It’s some powerful work.”
Davis, who drifted off as Burgard played, said later: “I don’t think there’s enough of this type of therapy going on. Because even with family here, it gets lonely in the hospital. And it’s a very scary place to be.”
But not everyone is comfortable with Burgard’s practice.
“There are people who don’t want her music, too, because music releases things,” Albritton said. “I think it releases dying.”
On the day Burgard played for Davis, she returned to visit a woman dying.
From the first song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the sedated patient began to cry with no tears left. Her response continued as Burgard moved from comfortable hymns to unfamiliar songs. English and Latin, sounds and words, harmony and dissonance.
After half an hour, Burgard stopped playing.
“I want to go home,” the patient said as her mother stroked her arm. “I want to go home.”
Her father sat on the couch, his hand at his mouth.
Burgard would say later that she was struggling to find the right music to help the woman move through her agony.
“She was fighting,” Burgard said. “It’s a battle to get home.”
Burgard became interested in music-thanatology after working as a music therapist in psychiatric and acute care rehabilitation hospitals. Then, she became a hospice volunteer.
She said she was initially drawn to the work because of the mystery of death. She views her music as a bridge, connecting people with each other and with the deepest parts of themselves, as they approach the end of life.
In 1996, Burgard was certified after completing a 2 1/2-year program at the Chalice of Repose in Montana. There, she learned to tailor music to a patient’s breathing patterns, level of awareness, pain and emotions, as well as their physical and spiritual reserves.
The method is known as “prescriptive music,” a cornerstone to her field.
She worked in Baltimore before moving to Columbia with her husband. She is now divorced.
It’s not often that Burgard is present at the moment of death, but it does happen.
She was with each of her parents, too, when they died, her father in 2009 and her mother just three months later, in 2010. That taught her what it means to be part of a family losing a loved one.
“I believe there’s no death,” she said. “I think it’s just a transition.”
Still, when she plays her mother’s favorite hymn, “In the Garden,” it can be emotional for her.
“She comes into the room,” as Burgard described it.
The hospitals don’t tout Burgard’s work, yet she has made them better, said Bridges, now the acute care executive for Baptist.
“It’s something unique,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Annie, it wouldn’t exist.”
Everyone needs healing. Every day, said Whitehead, the retired nurse.
“We’re taught not to count our losses, and not dwell on them, which is health in one way,” she said, “but they catch up with us, and if we don’t have ways to resolve our grieving, it can take over.”
Evans, who came back to nursing after her father died of cancer, said: “We hear that the angels play harps, and I’m thinking this is the gateway. This is the beginning to what they’ll experience.”