Next to her, in a hospital bed, a patient is dying.
Jenkins is one of a handful of music therapists who volunteer at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way.
“I usually am serious because I’m playing for people that are very sick,” Jenkins said.
The notes are dream-like and seem to float from the harp, following no recognizable melody. To play a song a person recognized would hold them in reality, Jenkins said. An unfamiliar song helps people let go.
“They can just listen to that and drift off,” she said. “Music helps people to let go and if they’re actively dying, their hearing is the last thing that stays with them.”
Jenkins doesn’t only play for those who are dying. She also plays to relax those who are critically or chronically ill. She plays for children and the elderly as well as patients just coming out of a difficult surgery. Music helps heal, Jenkins said.
She recalled a story from two years ago. She was playing the harp at a comatose patient’s bedside while the family gathered around singing hymns. The man suddenly awoke from a coma.
It could have coincidentally been his time to wake up, but Jenkins likes to think otherwise.
“I couldn’t help but wonder if the love from all his family there somehow reached him,” she said.
For those who are dying, Jenkins spends a considerable amount of the afternoon playing her harp at their bedside. A story in the Bible mentions angels playing the harp at a person’s death.
“There are rare occasions where it’s a little scary for people,” Jenkins said. “They say ‘Oh no, I’m not ready for that.’”
Although Jenkins insists she is not an angel, she said there is often a spiritual presence in the room when she plays.
“I’ve had people comment that they’ve been touched by the spirit. I don’t want to imply that it’s me, but it’s something that happens in the room at the time,” she said.
Soothing music reduces a patient’s blood pressure, relieves anxiety and affects the heart rate, said Renee Krisko, a chaplain at St. Francis. Krisco assigns Jenkins and other music therapists to patients who would most benefit from the music.
“I believe there are medical healing effects to this,” she said.
Jenkins said she’s watched a person’s heart rate go down on the monitor while she’s playing. She was trained in music therapy as part of the Music for Healing and Transition program.
Although most people will never have the opportunity to hear Jenkins play the harp, all visitors to St. Francis could meet Bonnie Knight-Graves.
Graves volunteers to play the piano in the lobby and in the mental health ward at St. Francis several days each week.
“It’s serving the public, actually,” Graves said of her work. “It’s setting the tone for people coming into the hospital.”
Music is healing because it relieves a patient’s anxiety, Graves said.
“It frees the mind of stress and gives them a more relaxed approach to life so they can heal themselves,” she said. “The body can heal itself if it’s not loaded down with stress.”