When Music Helps the Medicine Go Down (2008)

Elderly man in hospital enjoying music

Nurse Izoduwa Asoro (Iz for short) began her conversation with John Harbin with a question that all nurses in long-term acute care at Wesley Woods Hospital ask their patients: What is your goal for this shift?


Elderly &
Chronically Ill

A Long Ordeal

When Music Helps the Medicine Go Down

Most patients gave answers like being able to raise their arm a little higher or sit up longer. In this case, the solidly built 50-year-old Harbin didn’t blink an eye: "I don’t want anyone touching this bandage."

Harbin’s out-of-control diabetes had created a painful wound, from navel to scrotum. It would not heal and had become inflamed with infection. He had been referred to Wesley Woods to receive IV antibiotics and daily bandage changes. Yes, the dressing changes hurt, even under nurse Judy Abell’s experienced hands, even with the pain medications that Asoro administered. But both nurses knew that the changes were crucial to avoid worsening an already dangerous situation.

Meanwhile, in a common area near the nursing station, music therapist John Abel (pictured above) heard Asoro and Abell discussing the challenge of Harbin’s "goal" for the day and offered to help. He would give Harbin a special private session, playing whatever songs Harbin wanted while his bandage was being changed. 

It worked, that day, the next day and the next, until the dressing change shifted from something to be dreaded to an anticipated routine. With his favorite songs creating floods of memories and natural endorphins, Harbin needed less pain medication. Over the next six weeks, his infection cleared up, and the wound began healing. He was referred back to Emory Hospital for some needed surgery and then home to his grandchildren. 

This was good medicine but not particularly helpful to the hospital's bottom line. Harbin’s stay at Wesley Woods cost $51,000, of which Medicare paid $40,000, with no interest in paying for costs of private music therapy sessions to alleviate a little pain. But Wesley Woods was and did—and does. 

"Mr. Harbin taught us something valuable," says Asoro. Since treating Harbin, the two nurses have partnered with the music therapist to help other patients with similar problems.