Judith Ritchie unlocked her office at the Sammons Cancer Center and carefully gathered the instruments that she determined would best serve her patients in the oncology unit.
An American Indian flute. A plucked psaltery or lap harp.
Ritchie, a certified music practitioner on the staff of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, fills doctors' prescriptions to bring pain relief to patients with cancer. She studies their charts, searching their backgrounds and histories for clues to the sounds and rhythms that might relax them and, perhaps, reduce their need or dosage of pain-relieving medications.
Music, once dismissed by medical experts as a questionable alternative therapy, has evolved into a respected tool in integrative medicine programs in an increasing number of hospitals during the last decade.
Dr. Brent Bauer, professor of medicine and director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says research is beginning to catch up with the value of music in healing.
He credits the National Institutes of Health with changing attitudes in the professional community when it launched its Complementary Alternative Medicine program in 1998. The program evaluates massage, acupuncture, meditation, art and yoga in treating a variety of conditions.
At the same time, he cautions that these therapies are not meant to substitute for medical treatment but to improve their effectiveness. In addition, they must be applied in a highly individualized way, he says.
"They're not going to cure cancer or directly impact heart disease, but these things can help reduce stress, which helps promote healing by reducing blood pressure and the heart rate," he says.
In incurable cases, it also can simply ease pain, Ritchie says.
That's how it was for her patient Eva Ward, who spoke in November about how she looked forward to the way melodies from Ritchie's flute whispered like a soft wind through her hospital room.
"It's pretty peaceful," Ward said at the time. "It reminds me of the mountains. And when she plays it, it elevates me above every problem I've gone through. It helps with everything." Ward, who had acute myelogenous leukemia, died Feb. 3 at Baylor Carrollton at age 64.
Ritchie's music intervention is one of the many ways music can be used to help patients. Music therapy, which requires a different license, is more interactive, with music used to accomplish a prescribed task, such as helping a patient to move muscles, articulate words or expand cognitive functions.
Dr. Jeff Kendall, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, launched a music therapy program at that school's Simmons Cancer Center in September, working with Southern Methodist University music therapy students.
"When you treat the whole patient and not just the cancer, the cancer outcomes are better," Kendall says, citing a 2008 Institute of Medicine report called "Cancer Care for the Whole Patient" that he credits for fueling the demand for music therapy in cancer wards in particular.
Lisa Jones, a music therapist in the Child Life department at Children's Medical Center Dallas, says she's been impressed with research that supports her observations that music can help some babies do better in the intensive care unit. "We have had great results," she says.