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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Increasing numbers of people are looking for new ways to get relief as they near the end of life. For those who find that painkilling drugs are not enough, some studies suggest that music can ease pain and stress.

And this morning we will listen to the work of what's called a certified music practitioner. NPR's Korva Coleman followed a practitioner who plays a harp at bedside.

(Soundbite of harp music)

KORVA COLEMAN reporting:

Carol Joy Loeb is a former opera singer, a registered nurse, a harpist, and a certified music practitioner, or CMP. She's part of an emerging alternative medicine field that treats the pain and suffering of chronically ill or dying people.

CMP's park their harps as close as possible to their clients and go to work.

Ms. CAROL JOY LOEB (Certified Music Practitioner): I use the music to help bring calmness to them. It helps with pain. It helps with agitation. In the case of those that are actively dying, it helps them to go peacefully.

COLEMAN: Carol Joy recently worked with a dying woman who wasn't helped by morphine.

Ms. LOEB: She was in acute distress. She was thrashing about in the bed. As soon as the harp started to play, her respiration started to calm down and within ten minutes her respirations were almost not there. And when I realized what was happening, I said, someone, please go get the daughter, and she came in and took her mother's hand and she said, Mama, it's okay to go. And within one minute, she was gone.

COLEMAN: While some studies show that harp music brings peace to patients, others call for more research into its effects. And doctors can be skeptical of its effectiveness.

Dr. DEBRA WERTHEIMER (Medical Director, Seasons Hospice in Baltimore, Maryland): Beautiful music, and I didn't think that it was going to do anything. But you know, I thought, it wouldn't hurt. You know, if it helped, okay.

COLEMAN: Dr. Debra Wertheimer is the medical director of Seasons Hospice in Baltimore. She changed her mind after she saw Carol Joy work with a terminally ill patient who couldn't seem to find relief.

Dr. WERTHEIMER: And this lady, who had been so agitated, quieted down. She became extremely peaceful, and this lady remained peaceful for some period of time. It was just a pleasure to see. So she made me a convert.

COLEMAN: Peacefulness is important in a patient's last hours. This is the last day of Debra Cohen's life. She's unconscious in a dim hospital room in Baltimore draped lightly with a sheet. Carol Joy edges as close to Mrs. Cohen as possible and begins to play.

(Soundbite of music)

COLEMAN: After half an hour of music, Carol Joy went to play for other clients. Mrs. Cohen died later that day, and her family says she was at peace.

To become a certified music practitioner, Carol Joy Loeb earned accreditation through the Music for Healing and Transition Program. MHTP was founded eleven years ago to help musicians serve the dying and the chronically ill. Carol Joy has played in private homes, emergency rooms, in hospital wings for ventilator patients, and in assisted care centers.

One of these clients, Virginia Norman, says healthy people don't realize the relief music brings.

Ms. VIRGINIA NORMAN (Assisted Living Patient): People don't understand it because they think of pain sometimes as just like stubbing a toe. And it only lasts for a while and goes away. But there is pain that does not go away.

COLEMAN: Like nearly all of Carol Joy's clients, Virginia Norman died last year.

(Soundbite of music)

COLEMAN: Carol Joy continues to work with Maryland clients. She hopes to spread more information about the work of certified music practitioners.

Korva Coleman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find more stories on pain management and elder care at npr.org/yourhealth.

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