Making music to the beat of a heart

A special service offered by VCU Health’s Arts in Healthcare program records patients’ heartbeats, leaving their families with eternal memories.

Making music to the beat of a heart

Woman plays a guitar standing next to another woman who is recording the music on a computer.Melissa Owens and Mollie Luck, board certified music therapists at VCU Health, collaborate on a musical piece that incorporates a heartbeat into the song. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)


By Joan Tupponce

A loved one’s heartbeat added to a favorite song creates a cherished memory for a family. That’s the essence of heartbeat recordings, a service provided for critically ill and end-of-life patients by VCU Health board certified music therapists Mollie Luck and Melissa Owens.

“A heartbeat is part of a person. It’s what keeps a person going. Being able to give back the ability to hear a loved one’s heartbeat and include music, is like no other project I have done before,” Owens said. “It is one of the most beautiful things we can do for someone.”

Heartbeat recordings started in 2018 as part of VCU Health’s Arts in Healthcare program. Owens attended a conference for the National Music Therapy Association and met someone who led a similar project where they worked.

When Luck heard about heartbeat recordings from Owens, she says “it made perfect sense.”

Music is personal and sometimes just hearing someone’s favorite song is enough to conjure up feelings. But, when that is combined with a person’s heartbeat, it “has a part of the person in the song,” Owens said. “It’s a blessing and a gift for families to have.”

Woman listens to another woman’s heartbeat through a stethoscope.

Mollie Luck uses a special stethoscope to listen to a heartbeat. The stethoscope is connected to an iPhone through Bluetooth, enabling a recording of the heartbeat. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Making lasting memories with music

The first recording made was for a patient who had benefited from music therapy at the hospital, another service offered by the Arts in Healthcare program. When Luck knew his prognosis had changed to end of life, she discussed with him the option of recording his heartbeat.

“His sister started crying. It was overwhelming as an idea, but they were grateful it was an option,” she said.

The song that was requested for the recording was “My Girl” by the Temptations.

Luck helped another patient review his life through music. He talked about what the songs meant to him and what memories were attached to the music.

Luck and Owens have made up to 50 heartbeat recordings since they started offering the service. They use a high-end stethoscope to capture the heartbeat. For more complicated cases, get the assistance of a nurse.

“We always talk with family before getting the heartbeat. If a patient is alert and aware, it’s something we talk to the patient about so we can get an okay,” Luck said.

But the recordings are not for every patient and their family. Grieving is a different experience for every individual.

“But for those who are interested, it’s a beautiful gift that somebody can have,” Luck said. “Grief is complicated… Everyone has a different feeling about end of life. Some people want every memory they can get — a voice message, a fingerprint, etc.”

She feels honored that people allow her into their lives at a vulnerable time.

“During these difficult moments, I feel in awe of the human experience by witnessing each of these individuals and their loved ones, seeing the love there,” Luck said.

Music therapy helps patients through difficult times

The recordings are just one of the music therapy services that Arts in Healthcare program at VCU Health provides. The free program, which was instituted hospital wide in 2004, is available to patients on any unit of the hospital by referral.

Music has always been a part of Luck’s life, but she didn’t know music therapy was a career option until high school.

“It was a combination of everything I was passionate about — music and helping people. I knew it was something I wanted to do,” she said.

Music therapy is used to help with everything from stress to pain management. Individualized treatment options are created with specific goals, since every patient’s situation is different. Some patients are able to play instruments or sing as part of their sessions, while others choose to pursue songwriting or lyric analysis with therapists.

A patient’s preferred music is used during sessions if the music therapists are able to learn that information. If not, they are able to observe the vital signs of the patient to determine what music seems to be the most physiologically effective for the goals they are addressing.

“That is what is going to reach the patient,” Owens said. “We do every genre of music you can imagine.”

Whether it allows someone to feel safe or express themselves while at VCU Health, Luck and Owens know firsthand the role music can play in one’s life. A song can be healing for both patients and grieving families, holding onto a memory made by a special beat

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