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June 22, 2011
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

Harpist brings soothing sounds to patients

SYRACUSE, N.Y. —She pulls her cart from hospital room to hospital room, helping sick patients feel better, but Dona Wonacott is no nurse dispensing medications.

Wonacott of Baldwinsville is a volunteer from the Center for Spiritual Care at Upstate Medical University, and her cart contains a 25-string harp.

“It’s to help the healing environment,” she says, describing the music she plays for cancer patients and others throughout the hospital.

The majority of patients, family members and staff enjoy listening, says Nadiya Goletsas, RN. “The harp is very soul-touching music,” she says.

Wonacott typically checks with nurses about a patient’s condition before playing, so she can tailor the songs to the individual.

“It’s so peaceful,” says clinical case manager Elaine Barnard RN, BSN. She says patients on the oncology floor are dealing with traumatic information. “This gives them a little resolve, a little peace of mind. And, it’s very relaxing.”

Wonacott recently completed her internship at Upstate to be certified as a music practitioner through the Music for Healing and Transition Program, which is accredited by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians. The program is headquartered in Hillsdale, N.Y., where Wonacott took her courses, but courses are offered across the country.

Upstate is the first hospital in the area to host such an internship, said the Rev. Terry Culbertson, who directs Upstate’s spiritual care center.

“Spirituality has to do with what gives us meaning and purpose in life,” said Culbertson. Research has shown that strengthening one’s spirituality is an essential resource to promote healing, wholeness and coping during difficult times. Music, especially when it is live, connects deeply within us, touches our souls, activates key parts of our brain, and thus ministers to our spirit in a profound way.”

Wonacott played clarinet as a child in school and studied piano for a while before picking up the harp in adulthood, about 20 years ago.

Wonacott retired early from her job as a physical therapist so she could pursue this training. For the past 16 months, she has been playing at Upstate University Hospital on Tuesday afternoons. She regularly appears on the oncology floor and the neurological intensive care unit. She takes referrals from anywhere in the hospital, through the Spiritual Care Office, “but a family member of the patient himself or herself can request the harp music,” she says. “Sometimes someone will see me in the hall or the elevator and ask me to come to their room, or that of a loved one.”

While playing her harp Wonacott has seen patients whose vital signs stabilized and patients whose pain was alleviated. Her music has even helped some patients drift to sleep.

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