Healing Through Music

Arts & Health at Duke provides musicians to patients

William Dawson, right, of Arts & Health at Duke, plays a ukulele for Duke University Hospital patient David Stucker. Photo courtesy of David Stucker's family.
William Dawson, right, of Arts & Health at Duke, plays a ukulele for Duke University Hospital patient David Stucker. Photo courtesy of David Stucker's family.

Three days after lung transplant surgery, David Stucker received a surprise visit in his hospital room from a musician who asked if he would like to hear a song.

Stucker, a resident of Columbia, South Carolina, sang regularly growing up but had been unable to sing while fighting lung disease. But when Will Dawson, Duke’s full-time musician in residence, showed up in his room at Duke University Hospital that day last April, Stucker requested “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles and sang along with Dawson.

“I was so happy,” Stucker said. “It was a big boost for me to see that even three days post-transplant, I could sing again.”

Dawson’s visit was part of “Request a Musician,” a free service provided by Arts & Health at Duke. The service allows patients and families to request a professional musician to visit a patient at their bedside at Duke University Hospital and Duke Medicine Pavilion.

In the past fiscal year, Arts & Health musicians played at more than 1,000 bedside performances. Typically, musicians play anywhere from five to 20 minutes at each visit.

Dawson, the Semans/Byrd Performing Arts Coordinator for Arts & Health at Duke, said popular requests include spiritual songs, The Beatles and Disney tunes like “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”

Dawson and three professional musicians on his team visit the hospital and Duke Medicine Pavilion and travel room to room. They share a range of instruments and styles like jazz, classical and Latin.

In addition to requested appointments, performers visit floors for impromptu performances, as in Stucker’s case. Some musicians have become regulars for patients in the hospital for extended stays.

David Stucker was in the hospital from April 4-21, 2017 for a lung transplant.“It’s become this really magical, beautiful thing,” Dawson said.

In one case, a patient stumped Dawson by asking him to play hair metal – a mix of metal and pop music – on his ukulele. The musician settled on playing “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

Another time, a man asked Dawson to play his wedding dance song for his wife, who was terminally ill, on their wedding anniversary. Dawson learned the song and returned the following day to play “You’re Still the One” by Shania Twain and found the man had brought in flowers and wedding cake for his wife and the hospital staff.

“Music is a safe space for people to get emotional, which is sometimes what they need,” Dawson said. “When I leave they’re smiling and feeling good, completely asleep or they’ve cried their eyes out. All of those are valid responses.”

Stucker, who sang “Georgia on My Mind," felt nothing but jubilation on Dawson’s visit.

“Being able to share that moment with William validated the decision to go forward with the lung transplant,” Stucker said. “Being able to sing again, I was on top of the world.”