NPR logo Don't Miss: Music Therapy for the Terminally Ill

Don't Miss: Music Therapy for the Terminally Ill

I'm from New Jersey. I don't cry much. But say "Danny Boy" or play the first few notes, and I have trouble holding back. Korva Coleman's piece this morning has "Danny Boy" in it. It also has a remarkable woman named Carol Joy Loeb, a trained nurse who sings and plays the harp to people in intractable pain, and to people who are dying. I don't want to make you cry, but I'm going to tell you to listen to it. You'll learn a lot about life — and about dealing with death.

Korva followed Carol Joy around as she saw patients. I asked her how Carol Joy does it. This is how Korva describes it:

It was humbling to watch this grueling work. Nearly all of Carol Joy's patients die. She glides into each client's room with a smile and a quiet greeting, wearing richly colored beaded floor length skirts, gorgeously tailored blouses, and decorative slippers.
When I visited Carol Joy's clients, I frequently found quietness, peace and even moments of joy. One of the tough visits to watch was a visit to a hospital ventilator unit. Carol Joy played for a client who'd had a severe stroke and was completely helpless. Her bed was placed low to the floor because she repeatedly flung herself out or kept falling out. She could not speak and had no other way to communicate. It was hard to tell what level of awareness she had. When we first arrived, the client was lying on her side, with an arm thrust straight up into the air. Her hand was balled into a fist and the nurses couldn't get her to lower it. When we left, about a half hour later, the client had finally eased her hand down to the bed in front of her.
I honestly don't know how she does it. I couldn't. She does only works part time, because full time would be so emotionally debilitating. She speaks often of her purpose — combining her love for music with her nursing background. Before she begins any session, she "grounds" herself, by leaning toward her harp and closing her eyes. She's not exactly praying or meditating, but centering herself, so when she opens her eyes, she's ready to offer each client whatever's necessary to his or her comfort. How does a palliative caregiver like Carol Joy keep going? I honest to God don't know, other than knowledge of purpose. Carol Joy's role is to ease the passage, not to cure the illness. For her, it's a ministry.

Update: If you're interested in becoming a certified music practitioner, visit You can find mentors and information for prospective students.

Important note: Certified nusic practitioners are not music therapists. CMPs deal with palliative care needs, while music therapists usually have other objectives.

If you're interested in locating a certified music practitioner to help yourself or somebody you love, there's also a list on the left-hand side of the page. Find your state or region and then look up the phone numbers or emails of CMPs close to you. Carol Joy welcomes your e-mails. You can contact her through her Web site.