She used to treat patients medically. Now, this woman helps by playing a harp at the hospital. By Teri Winslow The Virginian-PilotDec 9, 2017 NORFOLK “Ave Maria” – yes. “Rockabye Baby” – yes. “Purple Rain – no. “Freebird” – heck no. Some songs just don’t translate well to the harp, Karen Stowe says, and in the case of the iconic Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, she doesn’t like it enough to improvise. If she gets a request for it, she’ll steer the person to something similar. Perhaps “Stairway to Heaven.” Or she’ll ask if she can switch to another genre. After all, what Stowe does isn’t as much about a concert as it is calming.
“It’s magical the way a harp sounds,” said Stowe, who has led the music ministry at Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center for 12 years. “The body responds to it differently than any other instrument.” On Thursday, she worked her magic for Autumn-Rose Barclift, all 5 pounds, 3 ounces of her, and her mother, Oshiana Roberts, at the hospital’s Center for Birth. They listened as Stowe plucked a series of lullabies on the 38 strings of her black, carbon fiber harp. Roberts cradled her 2-day-old, who seemed to enjoy the brief performance. “She started smiling at one point, and it made me smile,” Roberts said. Stowe totes her harp to patients’ rooms three days a week and plays for anyone who wants 15 to 20 minutes of live music. Unless they have specific requests, she tailors songs to their status – playing more upbeat numbers for someone about to leave the hospital and more somber tunes for the dying.
A concert harp would too be big for the petite 54-year-old to lug around, but the model she uses is light enough to wheel down hallways and into elevators. She also has a black suitcase on rollers containing her music stand, stool, forms, iPad and foot pedal, which she steps on to turn pages of music on the Apple device. “You just see people, when you start playing the harp, melt,” said Stowe, who wore a necklace and earrings featuring the instrument. Stowe, a certified music practitioner who began her career as a nurse, sometimes plays for staff and has offered them something called vibroacoustic harp therapy. Basically, the idea is to lessen stress via the vibrations of the harp, which is hooked to an amplifier that is attached to a massage table. Stowe also plays at assisted living centers and nursing homes. Helen Yates, a lactation consultant at Bon Secours DePaul who has known Stowe for years, said the harp calms patients and visitors. “Everyone’s more relaxed and that’s nice.”
The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association didn’t have specific numbers on how many hospitals in the state have staffers like Stowe, but spokesman Julian Walker said music and art programs aren’t uncommon. Sentara Norfolk General Hospital offers a weekly concert at its Heart Hospital, and also operates the Music and Medicine Center. Dr. Kamal Chémali, runs the center, which offers a variety of programs, conducts research and does educational outreach. One example of the work done there involves employing a series of beats to help Parkinson’s patients overcome freezing episodes. “Music is hardwired in the brain,” Chémali said.
Plenty of pluck “Wow. Wow. Wonderful. I feel kind of uplifted.” Stowe had just finished playing a few songs for Carl Harrington, a World War II and Navy vet recuperating from a broken shoulder and hip after a fall at his Norfolk home. Stowe began with “Moon River,” then played two versions of “Ave Maria,” after Harrington mentioned it was his late wife’s favorite song. His head bowed as Stowe played. She finished up with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” “When you’re a nurse, you have so many tasks, so many patients,” said Stowe, who is married with two adult daughters. “Now, I’ve got all the time I need with a patient.”
Stowe left nursing when she had her first child. She played piano growing up but was always fascinated by the harp. There weren’t instructors in the rural area of New Kent County where she lived, so she didn’t start lessons until she was 24. She’d heard a harpist at a friend’s wedding and it rekindled her interest. Although Stowe bought a concert grand harp, which has 47 strings and is much larger than the one she now plays, she never wanted to perform on stage. Eventually, the harp “languished in mommy-dom” until her children were older and another friend mentioned music practitioners. Stowe was certified through the nonprofit Music for Healing and Transition Program, completing 45 hours of class work in Charlottesville and 45 hours of bedside playing. The role of a music practitioner appealed to her lifelong desire to help people heal. After she earned her certification, Stowe went to a leadership meeting at the hospital and floated the idea of her ministry, Harp for Healing. She’s religious, though she keeps her harp playing non-denominational. “For any job, you’ve got to feel a calling for it,” Stowe said. “This is what I feel called to do.”
About 800 people have been certified through the program she attended, which is over 20 years old, said Virginia Bethune, an area coordinator in Harrisonburg. Currently, about 50 percent of the practitioners play the harp and the others either sing or play instruments like the dulcimer or viola, she said. Stowe’s base of operation is a closet-sized office near the entrance of the hospital. There’s just enough room for her harp, the massage table, a desk, a bookshelf and stools. The bookcase has two small harp statutes on it, and lots of CDs. She never tires of harp music, even playing for own enjoyment at home. But it’s never been about perfecting her technique. Her bedside manner at the hospital is another matter.
“If I leave and people say, ‘What a great harpist she was,’ that would not be what I wanted to hear. I want to hear: ‘That made me feel so much better.’” Teri Winslow, 757-446-2318, email@example.com
I had an attitude the moment I pulled into the hospital’s parking lot. I felt tense about having to get X-rays and see a podiatrist. A girl’s gotta have her heels, ya know?
Then something unexpected happened. The enchanting sound of a harp drifted down into the lobby of Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center.
This music sounded a lot louder, a lot clearer than Muzak piping through a sound system. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. That got on my nerves, too, not being able to figure out whether this was heaven or a hospital.
I made my way in stiletto boots down a hall as long the Yellow Brick Road, opened the door to the X-ray waiting room, and there sat Karen Stowe, plucking her harp.
I can’t remember what she was playing, only that by the time she finished, my body had relaxed. Before I got called to the back, I asked her to play the tune again.
This is what Stowe, a certified music practitioner, does: Provide therapeutic music. She’s soothed souls at DePaul since 2005 as part of the hospital’s healing touch program. The sound of her music wafts through the building on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Although it doesn’t appear so, her harp weighs less than 10 pounds, unlike the 50-pound one she has at home. The lighter design allows her to easily roll it throughout the hospital, from floor to floor, to various waiting areas, to patient rooms and to other music-therapy commitments in the community.
“If there were a backpack, I could put it in there,” the small-framed Stowe joked.
The mobility also allows Stowe to quickly get to areas where she is more immediately needed, such as those of patients in distress.
She recalled being dispatched to the room of an unsettled gentleman whose blood pressure was 180/130. Stowe stayed in his room playing music for about 20 minutes. His blood pressure dropped about 50 points, she said.
It did her as much good as him “to see him change and to know – whoa – that really made a difference,” Stowe said.
Other moments are bittersweet, particularly when she is playing for a dying person.
“The sacredness of when they’re taking their last breath and having the music there, you’re crying because you know it’s affecting the family. It’s a tough spot to be in … the opportunity to be in that moment becomes emotional.”
On a recent Friday, 75-year-old Mary Bell had been waiting all morning for her brother to come out of surgery. They had arrived only for tests, and the Norfolk resident hadn’t expected that he’d actually have an operation.
When Bell saw Stowe setting up the harp, she got up and moved.
“Is she gon’ play for us?” Bell excitedly asked. “I’m deaf in one ear. I don’t want to hear the TV.”
Bell sat next to me. “I want to get where I can hear her.”
Stowe began playing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Bell sang softly.
Lyrics to other tunes didn’t come as easily. “A lot of those songs she played, I recognize but can’t catch the name,” Bell said.
But that’s OK. The music put Bell at ease.
“It just perks the patients up,” she said. “I should bring my cat in.”
Stowe played another tune that soothed Bell.
“‘Is that ‘My Eyes Are on the Sparrow’? I think it’s ‘My Eyes Are on the Sparrow,’?” Bell said.
Bell was close. It was “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
People expect to hear ethereal music, Stowe said. “Every now and again, I like to throw something in there surprising like the ‘Addams Family’ theme.”
Stowe, 50, grew up in the country parts of New Kent County. As a child, she wanted to learn to play the harp, but lessons weren’t available in the area. So she took up the piano. Instead of embarking on a career involving music, she went into what her mom considered to be a more practical field, nursing.
The desire to play the harp gnawed at her. At 25 and after moving to Norfolk, she started taking lessons. She took a break from being a nurse after having children, all the while looking forward to a time when she could use her musical talent in a more ministerial way.
That opportunity came eight years ago when DePaul expanded its palliative care.
It was a perfect fit. She’d earned her nursing credentials decades earlier from DePaul. “This is where I wanted to be, and where I ended up,” Stowe said.
I can relate, sort of.
I didn’t want to be at the hospital that day, but I am glad I wound up there while Stowe was playing.
I left with a new attitude.
Jamesetta M. Walker, 757-446-2211, firstname.lastname@example.org