'Heart-Wrenching Joy': Music Therapist Sets Hospice Patients' Heartbeats To Song
Some of Dorothy Matejka’s favorite days are when she gets to enjoy music therapy in her south St. Louis apartment. She never tires of songs like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Goodnight, Irene” that recall special moments of her 93 years.
“I’ve had a very good life and a lot of laughs, a lot of good times and a lot of memories,” Matejka said.
Matejka wistfully anticipates leaving a special memory for her family after her death: a song that includes her own heartbeat and lyrics drawn from family stories. The song is part of the Heartbeat Project, which music therapist Alison Cole started three years ago with hospice patients after hearing about it in other cities.
“Instead of me thinking, 'Well, I did what I could to help them while they were here,' I'm able to help them for years to come,” Cole said. “It just gives you a really good feeling, as a therapist, knowing that you can do more.”
Matejka entered hospice care a year ago after her longtime kidney issues worsened and she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Since then, music therapist Kathryn Coccia has visited Matejka every month or two. On a recent visit, Cole came with her.
But while Coccia brought her guitar, Cole arrived with a tiny microphone attached to a stethoscope to place on Matejka’s chest to capture her heartbeat.
Matejka’s daughter Nancy Daake, who was with her mother during the visit, imagined what it will be like to hear her mother’s heartbeat in a song, after she’s gone.
“I’ll just cry,” Daake said. “It’ll mean a lot. Especially with the grandchildren and the potential great-grandchildren out there, it’ll be wonderful to share with them.”
‘An amazing father’
The project comforts families like that of Rachel Martinez of St. Louis, who sent Cole a bouquet of flowers from herself and her daughter, Mia, who was the light of her husband’s life.
“He was an amazing father,” said Martinez, a social worker. “Of course, he let her get away with a lot of things, but that was OK.”
Cesar Martinez, a health care industry executive, did enforce a few rules, including putting Mia in her crib at night. But when Mia was a toddler, her father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and the family began sleeping in the same bed.
“Physically, just being together was very therapeutic for all of us,” Martinez said.
This past May, when Mia was almost 5, Cesar Martinez entered hospice care at a facility called Evelyn’s House in west St. Louis County. He died a few days later, at 47. At the end of his life, Cole recorded his heartbeat and created a song with lyrics from stories Mia told about a family vacation to the beach and Disney World.
“She loves to hear it, and she asks to hear it mostly at night before we’re going to bed,” Martinez said. “It’s beautiful. I love it. It brings me joy — heart-wrenching joy.”
Martinez sees the song as a legacy gift that Mia can enjoy for the rest of her life.
“She can play it at her wedding,” Martinez said.
Cole and her Maryville University student interns have completed 30 heartbeat songs in their spare time, using the GarageBand app on a computer. But at least 20 more families are waiting for their songs and the comfort they can bring.
Since launching the project, Cole has learned a lot about streamlining the process. Initially, she asked families to request a song that was meaningful to them. She would learn to play it on her guitar, personalize the lyrics and add the heartbeat. One family asked for “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”
“It took a lot of time,” Cole said. “I was singing a lot of different parts, a lot of harmonies.”
Now Cole starts with the patient’s heartbeat and wraps a simple original tune around it. Sometimes she records a patient’s family member strumming their own guitar or singing lyrics and adds that to the mix.
Even as Cole struggles to find the time to finish her backlog of songs, she hopes to expand the Heartbeat Project and offer a song to the loved ones of all hospice patients.
“It’s a wonderful project,” Cole said. “Any family who wants it should have it.”
Alison Cole explains the value of music therapy.
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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