Bruising from N95 respirators, feelings of isolation and uncertainty about when normalcy will return — these are just a few of the images, memories and themes that came to mind for a group of Emergency Department staff when asked to reflect on their experiences over the past year as part of a novel music therapy project that transforms front-line staff’s personal reflections into lyrics and song.
The program, called Frontline Songs, was created by a Massachusetts General Hospital physician to provide healing via music to health care workers who have and continue to serve on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants are interviewed over Zoom by a songwriter about their experiences, and their stories are crafted into an original piece of music.
At the Brigham, Da’Marcus Baymon, MD, chief resident in the ED, Sophonie Bernard, emergency services assistant, Daniel Egan, MD, emergency physician, Hannah Green, PA-C, physician assistant and Karen Lewis Brownell, RN, an ED nurse, worked with Frontline Songs team member and Grammy-nominated American folk singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier to create a song that would articulate what they went through during the pandemic.
“I find a lot of times that it’s really hard for me to put into words what we, as health care workers, have been through when family or friends ask us. They see it all on TV, but when they actually ask you what’s going on, it is difficult to articulate what we experience day to day and all the emotions that go along with it,” Green said.
Green said reflecting on memories from the past year to brainstorm lyrics served as a great way to bond with her team and acknowledge, process and cope with what they went through as health care workers.
“This session allowed us all to share our own perspectives and emotions,” Green said. “It was comforting to hear from my coworkers that they’re feeling very similarly, and it was therapeutic to collaborate and form lyrics that help reflect these experiences and emotions.”
Baymon started singing and writing songs as a way to process and release his thoughts at 8 years old. He learned to play the violin in elementary school, then moved on to the saxophone in middle school. In college, he even considered changing his major from pre-med to music.
He hasn’t had much time to work on songwriting this past year, so Baymon saw this as a great opportunity to reignite his musical talents in a meaningful way.
“It was remarkable that all of us could talk about our different experiences and come up with a product that ultimately braids our experiences together,” Baymon said. “I felt closer to my colleagues. These are the people that I work with, but we don’t really get to talk as much on shift or share our experiences and the things that we’re struggling with outside of work that are totally a part of who we are as humans. It’s really connected us on a different level.”
Bernard also found the experience to be extremely therapeutic.
“Having a song that touches on everything that was hard to cope with at the time is like being able to tell the story of COVID in a different way,” Bernard said. “If I am looking at it from the positive side, what came from this whole experience was growth and resiliency — learning to not only be there for the patients but also for our family, community and ourselves.
During the two-hour songwriting session, the team discussed the difficulties they faced not only at the bedside but also outside of work. Although health care workers were celebrated nationwide as heroes during the pandemic, staff who participated in the session said they also felt stigmatized at times due to their proximity to infected patients. ED staff also spoke about the loneliness of coming back to an empty home, as many lived apart or stayed away from family earlier in the pandemic to avoid the risk of potentially exposing loved ones.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we were all called ‘health care heroes,’ and we appreciated the appreciation. But at the end of the day, this is our job. This is what we were trained to do, and this is what we want to do,” Green said. “Fast-forward a few months later, and all of a sudden we were looked at as almost being contaminated.”
Lewis Brownell discussed the obstacles she faced when taking care of her elderly parents and her young grandchildren as a front-line nurse during the pandemic. She was excited to have a creative space to share her emotions and experiences.
“I love reflection. I keep a five-year journal, and each year I write a few things I’m grateful for every day. I’m on year four of this one book and just to read what I’ve been through exactly a year before — we’ve come so far, but to reflect back on it, that year was really tough,” Lewis Brownell said.
Before the session, Lewis Brownell asked other nurses what words came to mind when they looked back on the last year. They responded with phrases like resilient, courage, strength and coming together.
“It just lightened my heart to really put it into words and then to watch Mary’s creative process,” Lewis Brownell said. “Within three hours, we came up with this beautiful song that says we’re stronger together and we’ve been through all of the hard times, and the song ends on such a positive note with vaccinations and getting closer to being normal.”
Egan, the Emergency Department program director, said the experience was impactful and brought the ED members together.
“While we all have different roles in the ED, what we and the songwriter quickly realized is that there were so many shared experiences between us,” Egan said. “It was amazing to take such broad thoughts and distill them into short phrases that tried to capture the full range of emotions that felt truthful and resonated with all of us. At the end of it, I left feeling hopeful and optimistic which I think comes through in the song.”