Music therapy's magic moments; reconnecting patients with emotions and memories

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Music therapy's magic moments; reconnecting patients with emotions and memories

John Hedigan says people sometimes don’t know what to expect when they see a “dude with a guitar in a hospital”. The senior music therapist at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre explains music therapy and its therapeutic benefit for palliative care patients and their families.

Just occasionally, new palliative care patients view John Hedigan with bemusement. As the senior music therapist approaches them, guitar in hand, perhaps they fear they’re in for an awkward “Kum Ba Yah experience”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I don’t think people expect to see a dude with a guitar in a hospital,” says John, who uses music to reconnect patients with emotions and memories from their past.

John focuses on patient’s musical preferences, building a relationship that leads to life review, singing and using instruments. Just recently he helped a dying man, Bob*, to write and record a song which served as a final moving gift for his family.

During Bob’s first palliative care visit John learned that he like to sing, he was a big country fan, and his earliest albums were by the likes of Charley Pride and John Denver.

About four months later Bob returned for end-of-life care.

“We’d been singing a few songs, and he said to me ‘How do people write such great songs?’. We had a long conversation about creative inspiration and where it can come from. Then I said ‘Maybe we could write a song together’,” says John.

“He laughed and said it was a crazy idea, as people often do. Then I explained the simplicity of the process and how I could help him do it.

“When you’ve got that creative inspiration and something to say, clinical song writing can be a really fluid process. I said, ‘If you were to write a song what would it be about?’ and he quickly said ‘steam trains’, with a big grin on his face.”

John played a bluesy train-inspired rhythm on the guitar and Bob shared his memories of steam trains that had featured in his youth and key moments in his adult life.

“We wrote a song called the Steam Train Blues. We have a new recording studio here at [the Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre], so Bob was able to come down and help me record that song and do some vocals.

“We burned CD copies of the song and gave them to his family. He was pretty excited about his song and very happy with the recording. It was a really great thing for the whole family to see Bob enjoying himself and happy right up until the end of his life.”

“It is a great intervention to use because it gives people the opportunity to claim their feelings and make them tangible, and it puts them into a form that can be beautiful and moving.

“Patients might be talking about really difficult feelings in a song, but in music therapy patients can transform these into a song in their preferred style.”

While John is an experienced existential counsellor and much of his work is verbal, he feels it’s very important to encourage patients to sing and or play instruments.

“I think singing is probably one of the healthiest things we can do in life. It is so natural, fundamentally expressive, and it just makes us feel good.”

John spent years balancing his music therapy work with being in high demand as a touring multi-instrumentalist with Something For Kate, Darren Middleton and Clare Bowditch.

He started his career as a music therapist and senior counsellor at Odyssey House Victoria, working for seven years with substance-dependent adults. He has since spent a decade at the Austin Hospital founding programs across the many psychiatric wards and in acute oncology.  John found his niche in palliative care and he now oversees many music therapy programs at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Centre.

“It’s such a privilege to work with such great nurses, allied health clinicians and doctors – I really believe we offer the best kind of care to our patients.”

In 2015, John was diagnosed with brain cancer. Working in palliative care, death and dying had long been part of his every day, “but then to have my own experience of that – of my own mortality – has been at once immensely challenging and life-affirming”.

“It hasn’t really changed how I work, but I think it has changed how I look at my life, so now I really focus on what is important,” he says.

John has always worked to establish a relationship with patients that builds trust and makes them comfortable to talk about their fears of dying. While it has always been a “pretty powerful discussion to have with a patient, my own relationship with that conversation is a little richer now”.

“I live with the understanding that anything could happen, and living that makes me feel every day is an absolute gift.

“My knowledge of what it means to live well with cancer has coloured how I live my life.”

John feels lucky to be able to continue his work in music therapy because it means he gets to play music for people every day, and that’s what he wants to be doing with his time.

Living with cancer has galvanised him to make his first solo album – Doc Holiday’s Cafe. The title track is a song he wrote about a patient, Bill*, who he’d worked with during his early years in palliative care. Bill, who died of pleural mesothelioma, had spoken during music therapy about his days working as an asbestos miner and good times at Doc Holiday’s Cafe in Wittenoom in the Pilbara region of WA.

“It is a very bitter-sweet song about Bill’s life, mining with his mates, drinking and having a good time together at this place Doc Holiday’s Cafe. Bill felt these were some of the best years of his life with good friends and a good income for his young family, and yet 30 years later he was told he was dying from being there and that his employers had known the dangers many years before being shut down.”

“There are probably little pieces of my patients scattered around in all of my songs and a smattering of my own world and relationships and family. It is a broad spectrum of influences.”

John says there is a strong and growing evidence base for music therapy interventions in cancer care, particularly for the psychological benefits of song-writing and music making.

“The parts that are difficult to quantify are the magical parts of music therapy, where people are emotionally connected, or might be feeling better emotionally and spiritually,” says John.

“Sometimes I might see patients and they are feeling low, but then they start feeling better with some music and a connected conversation and they’ll start talking about their life in a more animated, positive light.”

John’s solo album Doc Holiday’s Cafe is available on CD from

ABC Radio’s Clare Bowditch has been broadcasting fortnightly interviews with John “about how music can help us through our toughest times: addiction, trauma, transition and palliative care”. Listen to their discussions about why connecting with music is clinically useful, how music is intertwined with emotion, and how it can change our lives in an instant.

*Patient names changed.