Arts and Entertainment

Amazing grace: Harpist finds her calling at Harrison

Dana Sheppard has found her calling as a therapeutic musician at Harrison Medical Center. - Bill Mickelson/Staff photo
Dana Sheppard has found her calling as a therapeutic musician at Harrison Medical Center.
— image credit: Bill Mickelson/Staff photo

Complementary Therapies program at Harrison Medical Center heals the body and soul.

The patient was in his last moments. The family had gathered at his bedside as Dana Sheppard stood quietly in the hallway, softly strumming her harp.

"I could hear voices and things going on in the room, and I heard them praying," Sheppard said. "And I don't typically play religious music... because you just don't know where people are at, whether it will be helpful or not... but I started to play 'Amazing Grace.' I was there for maybe five or 10 minutes playing, and stayed there for a while longer before I moved on."

Days later, Sheppard, a therapeutic musician at Harrison Medical Center, would hear from a colleague who'd been approached by one of the family's friends, that inside the room in those last moments, the family had been praying for a sign to let the patient know that it was OK for him to go.

The family heard a harpist in the hallway playing "Amazing Grace." And a few minutes later, the patient passed on.

Sheppard's not there to perform or to put on a show. She's there to soothe and support the process of healing.

"We're there to be whatever they need us to be," she said.

Over the past three years, Sheppard has helped build Harrison's complementary therapies program. She's a certified therapeutic musician — not to be confused with music therapist — an established health care profession in which specific objectives are addressed through the use of the music.

"What we do here," Sheppard said, "I play relaxing music that is offered to patients and visitors and staff, and they can use it in whatever way they choose."

Sheppard started out volunteering her musical services to the hospital while she was on the waiting list for the nursing program at Olympic College. After about a year of volunteering, she earned a grant to play and research options for establishing a complementary therapies program at Harrison. Ironically, the grant came just as she got word she was accepted into the OC program.

A year later she was hired on as part-time complementary therapies coordinator, part-time therapeutic musician.

For patients, the complementary therapies at Harrison — including creative arts therapy, aromatherapy and pet therapy, in addition to the therapeutic music — are supplemental to their primary care, aimed at creating a more comfortable environment.

Often the complementary therapies can help patients manage pain by acting as a distraction or relaxation mechanism for patients. The relaxation techniques also help caregivers and patients' families.

"That whole relaxation response," Sheppard said, "there's been so much research done, that when you get that relaxation response you get better breathing, it lowers your blood pressure, it lowers your heart rate, it lowers stress hormones, and it raises the seratonin and melatonin levels."

Other programs Harrison offers, like the creative art therapy of folding origami cranes, can actually enhance killer T cells of the immune system through a process of positive reinforcement, Harrison Arts Therapy Coordinator Sierra Lee-Brenner said, while also offering visitors a place to focus their attention while waiting for news of their loved ones' progress.

"We don't integrate anything that isn't evidence-based," said Complementary Therapies Coordinator Tiffany Leveille, both in research and results. "And we see it day-to-day helping with the healing process, and helping lift spirits."

In just more than two years, Harrison's complementary therapies program has grown to one of the leading programs in the region — with a coordinator, two therapeutic musicians, an arts therapy coordinator, a host of certified volunteers and the unique distinction of receiving regular funding through the hospital's annual budget.

Leveille replaced Sheppard as coordinator last fall as the program began to expand, growing bigger than what one person in a part-time position could handle. The shift also afforded Sheppard the time to focus on her calling as therapeutic musician.

"I don't always know, or hear, everything that goes on," Sheppard said. "I just always trust that whatever the music is there to do, it's going to do."

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