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Music a healing balm for hospitalized COVID patients

Pam Kragen, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

SAN DIEGO -- Pharmaceutical companies worldwide are scrambling to develop drugs and a vaccine for COVID-19. But for dozens of San Diego patients now hospitalized with the disease, music is proving to be a soothing treatment for worn-down spirits, agitation and fatigue.

Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego in Hillcrest and UC San Diego Health facilities are among a growing number of hospitals nationwide offering COVID-19 patients free, one-on-one private concerts played virtually via iPad by string musicians all over the country.

The concerts are presented through Project: Music Heals Us, a 6-year-old nonprofit in New York that produces classical concerts in nontraditional locations such as nursing homes, homeless centers and correctional facilities. Since they launched the COVID-19 concert program on April 7, 88 musicians have presented 140 hours of music for 545 listeners at a dozen hospitals in eight cities from San Diego to Boston, according to Andrew Janss, co-artistic director of PMHU and a professional cellist.

Truong-Giang Huynh, the Intensive Care Unit manager at Scripps Mercy, has seen the therapeutic results of these 15- to 20-minute concerts first-hand. He is also a musician, having played violin for several concert organizations in San Diego over the past 20 years. He said he's watched with admiration how the brief musical interactions affect the COVID-19 patients.

"I watch the professional musicians playing for them and literally before my eyes I see the (patients) doze off," Huynh said. "It's really beneficial for the patient because these patients need to rest. A lot of them are agitated because of many medications and we're in their room constantly, so they lose sense of what's day and what's night."

Huynh said he has seen recently extubated patients, who are so agitated that their arms are strapped down to keep them from pulling out IVs and other tubes, suddenly sit still. And he saw a dying woman who had become unresponsive open her eyes when the violinist started to play.

 

The program is just as beneficial for the musicians, whose concert bookings have all been canceled for the year. They receive a $100 honorarium per three-hour session, but Janss said most of them would be willing to work for free because performing for the patients offers them a way to use their talents to help others.

Among them is world-renowned violinist Timothy Chooi, who oversees all of the San Diego hospital concerts for PMHU. Based in Philadelphia, the Canadian-American musician has won top prizes at international competitions in Belgium and Germany in the past two years.

Chooi, 26, had just finished extended studies at The Juilliard School in New York and had embarked on an international career when the pandemic hit, canceling all of his engagements for 2020. He was grateful when Janss asked him to become the San Diego music administrator.

"All my life has involved goals toward musical performance since I was 3 years old ... For that to be stripped away hit hard," Chooi said. "The nice thing about when Andrew reached out is that it gave me a different sense of purpose. It's selfish to think how it's affecting me when there are people dying in this world and I didn't know how to help them until now."

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