Helping the Sick and Dying Through Music

, Written by Christine Pitawanich, Posted: Thu, February 14 2013 at 6:30 PM, Updated: Sun, February 17 2013 at 11:57 PM

Music-Thanatology has been instrumental in the healing process of people suffering from debilitating illness.

It's a unique profession that enriches the lives of people struggling with their health, in pain, and confined to a bed.

Experts trained in the field of Music-Thanatology, play beautiful music to promote healing and  relaxation.

It was developed specifically to ease the transition from life to death but it's also used to help people cope with severe medical conditions.

Life for Dene Bish took a dramatic turn in October of 2011.

"I haven't walked since the middle of October," said Dene.

She suffers from a rare disease, called Multiple Systems Atrophy, or MSA.

"My muscles contract, make my feet curl. I have a lot of tension and rigidity in my body and my breathing is often very difficult," Dene described.

For Dene, it was a difficult transition, a woman who was independent, living on her own and frequently spent time outdoors.

One of her favorite hikes was in the Sisters Wilderness Area.

Painful muscle spasms and tremors plague her every day.

"They [doctors] cannot predict how long I have," said Dene.

"It's a bit disconcerting to be told you have an incurable disease," she continued.

However, every week she looks forward to a visit from James Excell.

He plays his harp, while promoting healing.

"It [the music] affects the brain, it affects the heart, it affects the metabolism, it affects a lot of deep structures within the brain. In fact way below conscious level in terms of healing."

He is a Certified Music-Thanatologist, someone who plays harp music and sings for the sick and dying.

On one particular day, we found him playing for Dene who is a  hospice patient at her home. 

While he visits hospice patients at home, he also treats people at Rogue Regional Medical Center. There, he and his wife Elizabeth Markell play a combined 10-hours per week for patients.

"Pain management, nausea management for chemo patients especially. It does seem to help," said Excell.

He said he practices what's called prescriptive music, where he alters his rhythm based on each individual patient.

"I get all my cues from the patient, checking the vitals, the breathing, pulse, things like that and trying to reflect that in music," explained Excell.

One doctor we spoke with said Excell's profession...combining harp music and medicine...is no gimmick.

"It actually helps the patient take slower and deeper breaths, it takes away quite a lof of their pain and these have been studied...it's well known scientific facts," said Dr. Somnath Ghosh, a Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialist at Rogue Regional Medical Center.     

He said he's seen for himself, the benefits of Music-Thanatology.

"It's almost as if it relieves pain without any additional medications," said Dr. Ghosh.

"It's an intervention with zero risks and only potential benefits... It's just another modality in my arsenal to help patients," he continued.

A love of helping people is precisely why James Excell does what he does.

"I just love what I do. This is a calling," Excell said.

His profession, a life's calling for Excell, who is a cancer survivor as well as a heart attack and stroke victim himself.

"I couldn't speak English, but I could sing in Latin, Hebrew and Gaelic."

"Being able to play for people, it was part of my own healing," he said.

With the pull of a harp string, and deep melodic chants, Dene is able to get the relief she so desperately needs.

"The pain goes away, tremors die down, tension is less, my breathing evens out. It's the best hour of the week," Dene said with a smile.

She and her caregivers said her one hour with Excell is the only time she's truly pain free.

By the time her session with Excell was over, her body was still and her tremors were gone.

We're told the effects from one session can last for hours and can help people in pain drift off to sleep.

Music-Thanatology is practiced in the Valley at Rogue Regional Medical Center, Ashland Community Hospital Hospice and Asante Hospice.

For more information on Music-Thanatology you can call RRMC at 541-789-7000 or e-mail James Excell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

About the Author

Christine Pitawanich

Christine Pitawanich was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. In 2010, she received a master's degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York.

Christine also has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from the University of Washington.

Before joining the NBC5 News team, she had the opportunity to file reports from Washington D.C. for WFFT FOX Ft. Wayne News in Indiana. Christine has also interned at KOMO-TV in Seattle.

Christine loves to ski, try new food and have fun in the outdoors.

Catch Christine anchoring weekdays on NBC 5 News at 5pm.

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