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Hospital starts all-employee orchestra of doctors, nurses to promote positive mental health

Hospital starts all-employee orchestra of doctors, nurses to promote positive mental health

Dr. Vincent Hsu had been dealing with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year.

The internal medicine physician from AdventHealth in Orlando, Florida, and his colleagues were worn out as they worked to treat sick patients.

"Every day that came with more patients ... we just waited with bated breath," he told ABC News. "Are we going to be able to have the bed capacity? Are we going to have the staff to take care of them? That was a big unknown."

MORE: Depression rates among US adults reach new high: Gallup

He added, "Needless to say, it was a very trying experience because of all those unknowns coupled with the fact that we knew this was not going to be a sprint, this was going to be a marathon."

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Feeling tired, overwhelmed and burned out, Hsu came across a screenshot on his hospital computer. AdventHealth was starting an employee orchestra and it was looking for volunteers.

PHOTO: AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra's plays their first performance: a requiem for those who died during the pandemic, summer 2021. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)
PHOTO: AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra's plays their first performance: a requiem for those who died during the pandemic, summer 2021. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)

Aside from being a doctor, Hsu is also a classically trained musician and plays violin. He and his wife decided they would audition.

"We both looked at that and said, 'Hey, maybe this is what we should do, maybe this is something that could help us out,'" he said. "We did not know much of the background behind this, but wow, to be able to do something a little different was really intriguing for us."

The orchestra was the brainchild of Richard Hickam, director of music and the arts for AdventHealh, who now directs the ensemble.

"I used to teach high school orchestra and I knew that we had several string players in the organization," Hickam told ABC News. "And I started thinking, we had an event coming up -- a conference on mission -- where we were kind of talking about what was happening and how we could bond together."

After getting the support from hospital leadership, Hickam got the word out about auditions.

MORE: Less staff, longer delays and fewer options: Rural America confronts a health care crisis

At first the orchestra started with a strings session made of AdventHealth employees who played violin, viola, cello and bass. However, the orchestra grew to include brass, wind and percussion instruments and now boasts nearly 60 members.

Nurse Ian Barnett, who works out of AdventHealth's hospital in New Smyrna, is the orchestra's principal bassoonist. He said being unable to play music when COVID first struck was saddening.

"It was a stressful time," he told ABC News. "We were the COVID unit in this hospital, so I dealt with it from day 1. And I play music and so all of that was shutdown. And there's burnout. You get very fatigued. You go home and you do the same routine over and over."

He said being in the orchestra has done wonders for his mental health.

PHOTO: Dr. Vincent Hsu plays the violin during AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra's first performance: a requiem for those who died during the pandemic, summer 2021. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)
PHOTO: Dr. Vincent Hsu plays the violin during AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra's first performance: a requiem for those who died during the pandemic, summer 2021. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)

"When we're playing music and making music together, I'm relaxed and I become centered," he said. "I think it's because we're all together trying to make beautiful music together. It just sort of it centers me. I can't explain."

Research shows that music can be beneficial to our mental well-being. According to a study from King's College London, music can increase production of dopamine, a chemical in the brain linked to feelings of pleasure. It can also lower levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone.

Additionally, music can also help decrease anxiety and help shift someone's mood toward positive feelings, according to research from Harvard.

Hickam said there are two music therapists in the orchestra -- one plays clarinet and the other plays flute. They've helped members promote positive mental health through music.

MORE: Women in health care suffer burnout disproportionately to men

"They had turned their career towards music therapy, towards helping others and they weren't able to use their instruments every day [during the pandemic]," Hickam said. "Being able to return again to [an] instrument not only helped them but it helped us as an orchestra … and they can also talk to the orchestra in ways that only music therapists can."

In summer 2021, the orchestra recorded its first performance, a requiem for those who lost their lives during the pandemic, including their own patients and colleagues.

Then, in December 2022, the first public performances were a series of Christmas concert at Disney Springs and the Orlando Rescue Mission. The group eventually plans to do a full concert season with four performances per year.

PHOTO: Nurse Ian Barnett plays the bassoon during a rehearsal of AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra, fall 2022. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)
PHOTO: Nurse Ian Barnett plays the bassoon during a rehearsal of AdventHealth's all-employee orchestra, fall 2022. (Matt Rainey/AdventHealth)

"Joining the orchestra, being part of that ensemble, to make music and to have that creative outlet ... has just really been a godsend for us," Hsu said. "The music not only has been therapeutic for others but clearly for us as musicians as well."

He added, "To be able to have an alternative way to express yourself and to work with the same folks in the hospital -- it's a surreal feeling and truly remarkable."

Hospital starts all-employee orchestra of doctors, nurses to promote positive mental health originally appeared on abcnews.go.com