Cuban singer Mercedes Hernandez opens her mouth to sing and the joy is so obvious you can see the smile on her face even without a music video.
She’s tapped into a remedy the medical community has known of for centuries: Music therapy.
“We are trying to improve patients’ overall health using music mostly for pain management, coping, anxiety, helping oncology patients navigate through a new diagnoses,” said Evelyn Laguardia, music therapist for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
The therapy, which can include instruction on instruments, guided imagery paired with music, and using music during procedures, is available at several South Florida hospitals including the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami, Baptist Health South Florida, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Nicklaus.
In 2006, Hernandez was diagnosed with vulvar cancer, which accounts for about 4 percent of cancers of the female reproductive organs and 0.6 percent of all cancers in women.
In Hernandez’s case, the cancer reoccurred in 2014, according to her thoracic oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, and has spread to advanced lung cancer and to her bones.
Hernandez underwent chemotherapy and a procedure to remove the fluid from her collapsed right lung and has seen specialists from Tampa to Germany. “But they don’t have a cure for this, everyone is giving her bad news,” Rodriguez said.
Everybody, that is, except for Hernandez, who sings professionally as Mercy Silva at private functions, Calle Ocho events and at jam sessions at her Miami Lakes home.
Technically, because of the lung cancer, she shouldn’t even be able to sing, doctors say. You need the wind in your lungs to vocalize properly and have the energy to exert yourself. Tell that to Hernandez, who sings old-school Cuban classics from the 1950s forward.
“I sing with my heart more than with my lungs,” she said. “Sometimes people can’t understand how I can sing but I do. I was singing before this illness happened and have been doing this for 12 years. My soul needs some music, some kind of medicine, and that is my medicine.”
Today, Hernandez is off the chemo and out of a wheelchair. Her lungs have opened up as well.
Hernandez even fulfilled a life-long dream: she sang with her idol, Venezuelan salsa singer and musician Oscar d’León. “I love him, that is the kind of music I sing,” she said. “My family knew he was my favorite artist and so they brought him to my house. I was so happy because he’s always traveling. So I can say I sang with Oscar d’León!”
Nervous? Not really.
“He said, ‘Let’s sing.’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’”
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music as a healing influence is as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato.
At Nicklaus, music therapists work with young cancer patients and their families in a variety of ways:
▪ Progressive muscle relaxation. Muscle stimulation is paired with guided imagery and various instruments to calm anxious patients.
▪ Gate theory of pain. A Canadian researcher proposed this theory in 1965. “The brain can only handle so many nerve signals at the same time and can focus on one stimulation at a time,” Laguardia explained. “If the only stimulus is pain that is what the patient will be feeling. If we can overpower that stimulus through a compelling way that engages the patient — through music — we can overpower that negative pain experience.”
▪ Therapeutic instrument learning. At Nicklaus, the Ukulele Kids’ Club teaches patients, like Melissa Espinosa, 12, how to play the stringed instrument as a coping technique. Still others learn the guitar or piano.
▪ Legacy building. For some patients with terminal cancer, Nicklaus’ music therapists, its IT department and music engineers have incorporated a program begun at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital last year in which a patient’s heartbeat is recorded as a rhythm track. The heartbeat is then mixed in with a chosen tune by the patient or a family member. The final product is presented to the family on CD.
About a month ago, Nicklaus made its first recording for a family whose 4-year-old daughter, a twin, died. The chosen songs were Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz and Do You Want to Build a Snowman from Frozen.
“The family can preserve the integrity of the patient and preserve their heartbeat in a meaningful way to a song that is meaningful to them,” Laguardia said.
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Healing power of dogs
Much like music therapy, pet therapy has also become a fixture at many medical centers. At Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami Beach, for instance, three teams of dogs visit patients on a regular basis.
One popular team consists of labradoodles Jacques and Eli, who will jump into bed with patients for a quick cuddle.
“A lot of patients here are scheduling their treatments around the times the dogs come in,” said Lisa Gonzalez-Alpizar, a licensed clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai. “One young man with newly diagnosed cancer didn’t want to speak with anyone, not even his family. When we started bringing the dogs in that opened the door to do good work with him.”
Animals used in therapy can lower stress levels and blood pressure, improve mood, decrease pain medications and reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Dogs are the most popular choice.
“The dogs walk into the treatment room and you can feel the entire room take a deep breath and sigh,” Gonzalez-Alpizar said. “Even the staff winds up getting a lot more support as the dogs go through the nurses’ station before they get to the patients.”