DALLAS – At Baylor University Medical Center, Terese Cullen provides something to patients that doctors do not.
“Often times, I won’t do well-known music," she said. "We try to steer away from that mainly it will be non-metered music, things you can’t tap your toe to because that helps us follow heartbeat and breath when we’re accompanying."
This is not a story about music therapy.
Cullen, 53, was trained as an opera singer and has performed on some of Italy’s biggest stages. But she gave up that grand pageantry to perform in the more intimate settings of hospital rooms – often with patients who are facing their final days.
“We – and many doctors – say one of the last senses to leave the body is hearing,” Cullen said.
She's a music thanatologist – specially trained to use music to help patients and their families cope with serious illness and the end of life. There’s only one other such professional in Texas and just about 100 in the world.
“With music thanatology, we’re often playing for many patients that are not conscious, but we are able to see physiologically a change in the breathing, a furrowed brow becomes relaxed, agitation ceases, there are many signs that are non-verbal,” she said.
Using a harp and relying on her voice training, Cullen performs prescriptive music and synchronizes songs with the slowing rhythm of suffering bodies.
“I believe it compliments everything else Baylor is doing for me,” said Karen Plott, 59.
Awaiting a bone marrow transplant, she was on her 22nd day at the hospital when we met her. Cullen regularly played for Plott at her bedside.
“It was beautiful, and it was special,” Plott said wiping her eyes. “And these are happy tears.”
“She offers a treatment that I have no medication for,” said Dr. Elizabeth Carroll, Baylor Dallas.
Doctors say music can help when medicine cannot.
“The music can help with pain in a very real and physical sense," Carroll said. "It changes vital signs. It can calm the respiratory rate. It calms the heart rate at end of life. But it also provides a calm for someone’s anxiety and fear in a way that almost nothing else can."
Brad Franklin can attest to Terese’s talent.
“We found out Linsye’s diagnosis was not good," Franklin said. "We probably weren’t going home. And so, we asked her if she would come every day, and she said she would."
What happened to his daughter, Linsye Harman, is heartbreaking.
“When we found out she was diagnosed, we were in Wichita Falls, she was 17 weeks pregnant at the time,” he said.
She was 17 weeks pregnant when doctors told her that she had leukemia.
“I’m not knocking the doctors or anything," Franklin said. "They’re wanting to cure Linsye and said, ‘Look if we can terminate this pregnancy we have a good chance of beating this.’ Linsye refused, and said she wasn’t going to do that."
Linsye gave up her life for her child before they ever met.
Berklye was born healthy two years ago, but it was too late for Linsye. Cancer consumed her.
“There’s no playbook for this. We still don’t know what to do,” he said in a waiting room around the corner from where his wife, son-in-law, and granddaughter were holding vigil at Linsye’s bedside.
As Cullen softly strummed Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Berklye bounced between her dad and grandfather – playfully unaware that she will grow up without her mother.
The music eased the anxiety of uncertainty.
“I would hold [Linsye’s] hand between pieces and she actually squeezed my hands at various times. And I was witnessing that she was calming, as well,” Terese explained.
“It’s not an easy situation to walk into somebody’s family like that and we wanted her in there. It takes a special person to do that, I think,” added Franklin.
Linsye Harman, 23, lost her fight with Leukemia, 36-hours after that visit from Terese Cullen.
As a music thanatologist, she cannot numb herself to what she experiences every day.
But she does find fulfillment – in this rare profession – by offering patients a sense of peace as those around them face so much pain.