Good MedicineApril 22, 2013
Last week I saw something extraordinary.
I watched the music of Amy Winehouse soothe a patient who was recovering from a traumatic brain injury while suffering withdrawal symptoms from certain street drugs. He’d been irritable and restless all day, fidgeting and climbing out of bed, unable to rest and miserable in his persistent unease. He wasn’t interested in television, was too agitated to read, and the Celtic flute music supplied on the hospital relaxation station was useless to him as a diversion.
But when another nurse and I pulled an old stereo from behind the nurses’ station and played Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” at his bedside, his demeanor changed as suddenly as if we’d flipped a light switch. He leaned back into his pillow, sighed, and said, “That’s nice.”
For the next hour he barely moved.
Those familiar with Amy Winehouse’s music will know how completely at odds her vibe is with the atmosphere in a hospital—and perhaps that’s why her music mesmerized my patient, relieving his intractable agitation more effectively than any medication.
I often forget about complementary therapies—like music therapy—in the ICU. Prescribed medications are almost always the first intervention for pain and agitation, and yet complementary therapies are sometimes hugely effective adjuncts and easy to provide. I’ve seen fury stopped cold by the slow drawing of a wide-toothed comb through someone’s hair, seen someone instantly relax when provided pictures of a beloved pet, and have witnessed music provide relief more than once.
Small measures, perhaps, but sometimes little things matter a lot, and good medicine doesn’t always come from a vial.