Pa. doctor is music to patients' ears

March 08, 2001

Pa. doctor is music to patients' ears

By DON AINES / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Dr. Deborah GeerWAYNESBORO, Pa. - Eighteenth century English dramatist William Congreve wrote "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast," but it can also lower blood pressure and help the healing process, according to Dr. Deborah A. Geer.

Some doctors are known for their bedside manner, but it's unlikely many take a harp along with them as Geer does.

In addition to being a general surgeon, Geer is a certified music practitioner, using her musical talents to help those in hospitals and nursing homes.


"It is a program that teaches you to play for the ill or dying," said Geer, a surgeon with Waynesboro Surgical Inc. "There's a lot of work done at nursing homes and hospitals, intensive care units and neo-natal intensive care."

It took Geer a year to complete the course, which included 100 hours of classroom work on subjects such as Etiquette and Internship, How Music Heals, Philosophies of Healing and Care of the Dying. She did the classroom work over five long weekends in Charlottesville, Va., one of several sites around the country where the New York-based Music for Healing and Transition Program Inc. offers classes.

To earn her certification, she also had to put together a 90-minute repertoire and a 30-minute tape, as well as perform a 20-hour internship playing for patients. She did the internship at Philhaven Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Lebanon, Pa., where she is in the chaplaincy training program.

"I hope someday to combine medicine, music and ministry," she said.

There are two full-size harps in her family room, but the one she takes once a week to Philhaven and to Quincy United Methodist Nursing Home on request is a 14-pound folk harp that travels a lot easier.

A little more than three years ago, Geer picked up the harp when her 15-year-old son, Gregory Skipton, began learning the instrument. Earlier this year, she became a certified music practitioner through course work offered by the Music for Healing and Transition Program, a nonprofit educational organization.

"When Greg decided to play the harp, I couldn't leave it alone," Geer said. While relatively new to that instrument, Geer said, "I've been a flute player and a piano player forever."

Geer said music practitioners can use any instrument, although the harp seems to be the most common because of the soothing sounds it produces. "I don't think you'd want to use a saxophone or a trumpet," she said.

"Sometimes with patients, I'll just improvise," said Geer as she plucked the strings of the folk harp. Her repertoire includes Bach, Mozart and other classical composers, but she said many patients like to hear "Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art" and other classic hymns.

Geer said the main thing is to provide a service to the sick and dying, not to give a concert. The benefits of music, she said, are many.

"There have been studies that show music, particularly harp music, can decrease the blood pressure, pulse rate and respiratory rate," she said. "I did my internship at a psychiatric hospital and got to see how it worked with people that are really agitated or depressed.

"One of the ways they've described this music is like having an internal massage."

Music practitioners also work in hospice programs that care for the terminally ill, she said. The music can comfort those facing the final transition from this life to whatever lies beyond.

Geer said music is not a cure, but an aid to healing. What she does is not the same as music therapy, a different specialty in which therapists work with recovering patients using singing, musical instruments and other methods to help them regain lost capabilities, she said.

"As a music practitioner, it's just the music that does the work," she said.

"There are a lot of people who do this on a full-time basis," but Geer said she doesn't see that in her future. She said about 100 music practitioners have been certified since the program began in 1993.

The Music for Healing and Transition Program went international this year, offering classes in Canada and Australia, Geer said.

Geer grew up near Rochester, N.Y., and received her medical degree from the University of Rochester. She spent nine years as an Army doctor, receiving her surgical training at Tripler Hospital in Honolulu. That was followed by six years in private practice in Ohio before she joined Waynesboro Surgical more than four years ago.

She practices on the harp about an hour a day when she can fit it into her schedule, and learning along with Gregory has an added benefit. The mother and son perform together at weddings, luncheons, dinner programs and other events.

"We do harps together. We also do flute and harp, which is a very pretty combination," she said.

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