Originally created 06/20/03

Harpist uses talent to help patients heal



Nell Morris has a Harley, a harp and, as it turns out, healing hands.

Seated in the center of the Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinic's infusion therapy room, where patients receive chemotherapy treatments, Ms. Morris runs her fingers across her harp's multi-colored strings. It's a post she takes up once a week, playing for a semi-captive audience harnessed by the tubes and wires that administer and monitor cancer-fighting treatments.

Taking a break from dealing out her dulcet tones, Ms. Morris glances over her shoulder at the current crop of patients, most of whom have slipped into sleep.

"At first, I thought I was putting them to sleep," she said. "Now, I understand it's Benadryl."

Ms. Morris is part of MCG's Healing Arts Program, which began in November with the mandate to enhance and improve various patient-care environments by incorporating the visual and performing arts. She performs a similar service at University Hospital. She said that participating in the programs has allowed her to grow, both as an artist and as a person.

"I think that God gave me the gift of the harp and so I have a real desire to give back," she said. "I want to do something more than entertain with this music, something that might help somebody else."

More than just tunes from the classical canon, the music Ms. Morris plays must be diverse enough to meet a variety of criteria. For her more lucid hospital audiences, such as the chemotherapy patients or anxious parents in the Children's Medical Center, she will take requests for country, classical or sacred music. Other audiences, such as patients coming out of surgery, get music written with healing in mind.

"There is actually music written for patients in different types of patient settings," Ms. Morris said. "Patients coming out of surgery need their heart rhythms regulated and the human body will latch onto whatever rhythm is around it. So for them, I'll play music with a tempo between 60 and 80 beats per minute - a regular, healthy heart-beat rhythm."

Ms. Morris said there have been times when patients were disconcerted, then amused, to hear a harp playing as they emerged from anesthesia. She said she has heard doctors explaining to patients that the harp player in the room is not of the heavenly host varietal.

"One of the things they tell you is not to wear white, because they don't want you to look too angelic," she said. "In fact, the chancellor at University, when he introduces me, always tell people I might look like an angel, but that he knows better. Angels don't ride Harleys."

Although her primary concern is for the patients, Ms. Morris said the therapeutic nature of music often spills over into her personal life. Being able to play for an audience on a regular basis has seasoned her as a performer and helped cure her of a lifelong case of stage fright. She said playing at the hospitals has become so important to her, it's sometimes hard for her to shift gears and play in a more traditional setting.

"It hasn't ruined me, but I do prefer doing this," she said. "I still get into playing parties and receptions and dinners. But what I've found is that I really want to play my therapeutic music at weddings, and you just can't do that. They all want to hear Pachelbel's Canon in D."

Returning to her harp, Ms. Morris once again fills the room - more accustomed to the electronic beeps of a medical monitor and the low drone of television - with soothing sounds. Although seemingly unconscious, a small smile creeps across the face of one female patient. From her spot at the nurse's station, Marva Hall smiles as well.

"By the time people get back here, they've been through so much - admissions and taking vitals and labs tests - that they really feel like they've been through the mill," she said. "Then they may have to stay here for several hours. But the presence of the harp helps. It's calming and in this environment, that's beneficial."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com