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Treating Traumatic Brain Injuries with Music

Dalton: Now, a story about supply and demand. And the people demand…beer! Upstate New York was once the spot for hops, the plant that gives your favorite India Pale Ale its signature bitter bite. Long-Higgins: Now New York is attempting to take back the industry. The state is encouraging craft brewers to buy their hops from local farmers. This has meant a huge leap in the amount of hops grown in New York. But not all local brewers are on the hop train. Katherine Sullivan takes us from the farm to the pint.


LONG-HIGGINS 1: On the 6th floor of Bellevue hospital, a man named Hugo wears an eye patch and lays on his hospital bed. He’s 54, has a traumatic brain injury, and has been in this bed for a few days. His sister, Margaret, has been at his side for three to four hours each day since he arrived.

(ambi: we hear Jose trying to speak, though his words are inaudible)

MARGARET: 13:06: Slow down so your words can come out.

LONG-HIGGINS 2: The hospital room looks pretty typical– white walls, a birthday sign for Hugo. But what makes it feel different than a normal hospital room is the way it sounds.

Music ambi fades up.

LONG-HIGGINS 3: There’s a small speaker pumping out Christian music in the corner of the room.

MARGARET: I was surprised when they offered an ipod–wheeeeew what hospital offers an ipod with music?

LONG-HIGGINS 4: Patients like Hugo with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, get the usual hospital essentials…a bed, dinner tray, hospital gown. But they also get an ipod and a personal playlist with ten of your favorite songs. It’s a new approach to treating patients recovering from TBIs and strokes. And it’s part of a program called Music and Memory, which was originally founded to help patients with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. The goal is to help people remember who they are. Margaret says that for her brother, it seems to be working.

MILDRED: 11:32: It relaxes him. It brings him to a peaceful stage, especially when we hear the old hymns, like How Great Thou Art . Soothes the soul.

(fade up music)

LONG-HIGGINS 5: Hugo and Margaret aren’t their real names… I can’t reveal patient names because of the hospital’s strict confidentiality laws. Hugo likes Christian music, but all patients have different musical tastes. Once patients enter the unit, the staff finds out what kind of music they like. If the patient is unable to talk, the therapists make some educated guesses. Irene David is the director of the Therapeutic Arts department in medicine for adults at Bellevue Hospital. She scrolls through the department’s iTunes library and matches each song with a different patient she’s treated. She pauses when she scrolls past Klezmer.

(fade up)

DAVID: From the old country….think Fiddler on the Roof, it’s typically a lot of winds, a lot of clarinets, fiddle,

LONG-HIGGINS 6: The music library is constantly growing. Right now, there are 2,240 songs, and a little something for everyone. The more Irene keeps scrolling, the more excited she gets. It’s rare to see someone having this much fun in a hospital. There’s Mozart and Beyonce and the Barry Sisters…

DAVID: It’s just silly and uplifting, DA DA DEE DA DA, and it gets people moving…IRENE SINGS ALONG…I mean it’s silly and adorable, and that’s what you need when you’re in a clinical atmosphere.

Fade up music.

LONG-HIGGINS 7: The actual ipods are stored in a separate part of the hallway, along with the patient’s files. It’s like a medicine cabinet, but for music. Instead of medical charts, there are files with notes on how each patient reacted to their songs on any given day.

DAVID: Just a very simple fill-in grid, who’s on it, with patient for each line with room number, time returned, and a very important column, simply labeled, patient response, eg, facial expression, body language, signs of changed mood.….

LONG-HIGGINS 8: The Music and Memory program is at the forefront of this work, trying to explore how an impaired or injured brain can have such a strong reaction to music. Oliver Sacks was a famed brain scientist and champion of music and brain research. He once explained on an episode of Science Friday that it’s almost impossible to lose music, even if the brain’s language centers are knocked out.

Bring up Yo-Yo Ma:

SACKS: When music is played, or imagined, (sneak in music) uh, many areas in the brain get activated, some of them are healing areas, but some are visual areas, some are motor areas, em, many are emotional areas. There’s no one music center in the brain.

Fade down.

LONG-HIGGINS: Essentially, when you listen to music, a dozen networks are lighting up all over the brain. Sacks died in 2015, but other brain scientists are carrying on with new research. Dr. Jonathan Burdette is a professor of Radiology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. His recent studies on music and brain support the theory of the Music and Memory program, and he says that customized ipod playlists can help reduce the amount of medication patients of all kinds need to take. Less medication means less money.

BURDETTE: It’s cheap- it’s cheap! It’s not a drug for God’s sake. It’s it’s music. And uh, people have a connection with it.

LONG-HIGGINS: He says the Music and Memory program is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personalized music in clinical settings. While some critics may say it’s too touchy feely, Dr. Burdette says a day will come when patients of all kinds get ipods at most hospitals when they walk in the door.

BURDETTE: It’s gonna be the new normal and it’s kind of–I wouldn’t say it’s frowned upon, it may seem a little bit odd at some places now, that is not gonna be the case going down the road.

29:18: Irene to Rashida: (cut around)

Rashida: yeah, I switched it, I switched it.

29:24: Irene: So we can hear it from the speakers?

(fades down.)

LONG-HIGGINS: Back at Bellevue Hospital, another patient is getting his ipod turned on. When Roger first came to the TBI unit in January, he was asking for Bob Marley. He spent most of his time in bed and wasn’t able to hold a conversation. Today, he prefers salsa and merengue, and you can find him dancing and doing push-ups.


LONG-HIGGINS: Roger’s music therapist connects a speaker to his ipod.

Hear music.

ROGER: Music, the one I’m listening to now, means a lot to me.

Music Ambi.

LONG-HIGGINS: Roger says songs like these make him ponder his love life, his family, and his childhood. And that’s exactly what the program is trying to do…help patients connect with their identity before they became patients. And as Irene David puts it, those moments of clarity make a world of difference.

26:08: Music comes out of the speaker

DAVID: But what’s so beautiful about any art form is that it helps to open a window, or keep a window open, and that’s just something to treasure. And to know that you’ve been a part of that, to help move a patient an inch toward clarity out of the fog, it’s immensely gratifying.

LONG-HIGGINS: Song by song, patients get an inch closer to remembering who they were, or who they are, or who they could be again. And it’s a beautiful sound. Hannah Long-Higgins, Columbia Radio News.


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