Harpist soothes what ails patients at Woodbridge hospital

Debbie Doyle plays for a couple of hours each week at Sentara Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge.
Debbie Doyle plays for a couple of hours each week at Sentara Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge. (Philippe Nobile)
By Sarah Lane
Thursday, October 14, 2010

The surgical unit at Sentara Potomac Hospital is no different from those of other hospitals: It's fast paced. Patients need attention. Doctors have orders to be expedited. Nurses rush from room to room.

But when Debbie Doyle arrives at the Woodbridge hospital with her Paraguayan harp, the pace seems to slow down.

"She played and it was absolutely lovely and it just changes everything," said registered nurse Ada Diamantis. "It gives you a moment to go," . . . and then she loudly exhaled.

For a couple of hours each week, Doyle plays her harp at the hospital as part of a new program called Healing Strings.

The program was the brainchild of hospital chaplain Carol Wille and Doyle, who met in the spring during a three-day spiritual retreat outside Fredericksburg.

Wille arrived at Sentara Potomac three years ago from a hospital in Eugene, Ore., that had a music therapy program and a staff of music thanatologists, who provide music during end-of-life care.

Doyle, a lifelong musician who has been a church choir director since 1978, had experienced firsthand the healing effects of music. Ten years ago while a patient at Inova Fairfax Hospital, she woke up after surgery to hear a harpist playing outside her hospital room. At that moment she decided she wanted to bring the same peaceful and healing sounds to other patients. Doyle, who started playing the guitar at 13, learned to play the harp.

Separately, Doyle and Wille knew the benefits of having music in a hospital setting, and each wanted to share her gifts. The Catholic retreat brought them together.

"We collided," Wille said. "I couldn't push it forward until I had someone who could push forward with me."

Wille presented the program to the hospital in April. It was approved, and Doyle began playing in May.

For two or three hours each Tuesday, Wille directs Doyle to the unit that could benefit most from her music. One week, it's the surgery unit. The next, she's playing in the intensive care unit or for hospice patients.

Doyle generally sets herself up in a common area, she said, and plays from memory so she can connect with people. She plays pieces that she finds peaceful, including hymns, Pachelbel's Canon and Celtic music. Sometimes the pieces are familiar to the patients and they start singing.

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