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Fort Smith hospital uses music to alleviate pain

May 17, 2013

The staff at Sparks Regional Medical Center tries to alleviate their patients' pain in a variety of ways — including through the power of music, thanks to a local volunteer.
David Bruce, 65, spends his afternoons as a hospital volunteer playing hymns on his diatonic harmonicas to staff and patients alike in the main entrance, in hallways and in patients' rooms. He learned the hymns, which fill up two thick, three-inch music books that he carries around the hospital along with his harmonicas, when he attended First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith with his parents as a child.
Playing a harmonica was part of the deal when he began volunteering at the hospital three years ago, he told the Southwest Times Record.
"From the very first interview, this is what I wanted to do," Bruce said.
Bruce bought his first harmonica, which he still has, in 1966 while serving in the Navy in Hamburg, Germany. He didn't pay much attention to the instrument until he retired in 2008 and moved back to his hometown of Barling, where he met a harmonica aficionado named Elmer Anderson at the Barling Senior Citizens Center.
"I was privileged to know him, for he was the only man I've ever known to actually master this instrument," Bruce said. "When you see the John Wayne films, and they're sitting around the campfire and you're hearing 'Home on the Range,' Mr. Anderson played that song."
Although Anderson taught harmonica classes at Westark College, now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Bruce said he didn't learn the instrument from Anderson so much as he was inspired to play it.
It took Bruce about a year to get a firm grasp on the harmonica. He learned from instructional videos and websites, and practiced while working a security job.
"Like most guards, they have a lot of time on their hands — so one thing led to another, with the time on my hands and being able to play," he said. "There're a lot of songs out there on the market; there's a lot of different types of music. The only music that matters to me is the classics, the songs that have withstood the test of time."
His wife, Iris, serves as the hospital's chaplain and said she enjoys listening to her husband practice by playing along with a tune on the computer.
Iris Bruce said she spends most of her time at the hospital at the Intensive Care Unit waiting room or in pastoral care, so she doesn't often get to see him play for patients.
"I've seen him play when my father was ill," she said. "He'd play for my father, and my daddy just dearly loved it."
Toni Holohan, manager of Volunteer Services at Sparks, said she realizes how important music can be in a patient's recovery, and is grateful to have David Bruce on staff.
"He's got one of those caring hearts. Usually when he goes to talk to somebody, it breaks down any wall because of the way that he shows that he cares," Holohan said. "That makes it very easy for patients to talk to him. They love listening to his music.
"I'd love to have 100 of him," she added.
Holohan said the hospital hopes to expand its music program by adding violinists, and is looking at having a fundraiser to place a baby grand piano outside the waiting rooms near the main entrance.
"David's opened up our eyes to what else we can do, which is awesome," she said.
Bruce doesn't play by memory; in the books he carries around with him are hundreds of tabs, which outline the notes to be played along with the lyrics of the song or hymn.
Sparks isn't the only venue Bruce plays. He also plays at Hopes Creek Assisted Living Center in Van Buren, Fountain of Youth Adult Day Center and Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Fort Smith, and also volunteers and plays at Peach Tree Village, all for free.
"When Christ was here, he said I didn't come to be served, I came to serve. So, if we are a true follower of Christ, then we are to be servant," Bruce said.
Over the years, Bruce said he's seen the healing power of music first-hand, especially when he plays for those suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
"The music that these senior citizens grew up with — when they hear that, they get a warm fuzzy feeling and their Alzheimer's disappears and they act normal," he said. "It may be for three minutes. It may be for two minutes. It may be for 30 seconds, but there's something in their mind that's triggered to help them remember."
Iris Bruce said her husband doesn't plan to quit the harmonica any time soon.
"I think they can feel his love for the Lord," she said. "I think it just comes through his music — that he cares so much for the Lord."
David Bruce said when a patient invites him into a room to play, that's his "utopia."
"When these patients are flat on the bed, and the reason why they are in the hospital is because they are hurting — they've got pain, they've got problems. They've got family problems; they've got spousal problems; they've got problems that you and I don't know anything about," he said. "If they can hear God's music, my goal is that perhaps they can forget about their pain and concentrate on their maker."

 

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