NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Providing palliative care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center can be taxing for nurses trying to extend and improve the lives of seriously ill patients, especially amid the pandemic. Sometimes a song helps.
Anna Henderson, one of the unit's care partners, recalled a patient's reaction when she started singing for him. "He just started weeping, just breaking down, crying from his heart, crying from his gut.
"It was all I could do to keep singing, but I did. But, you know, it's times like that music and this job just go hand in hand."
Nurse and singer-songwriter Megan Palmer said the nurses use music and their voices to calm and comfort people, even something as simple as singing "Happy Birthday."
They're going beyond just familiar tunes. In conjunction with House of Songs, a songwriters' collaborative nonprofit, Palmer gathered some of the medical staff on the unit to co-write songs when they weren't working their 12-hour shifts. Since they worked together on the same unit, Palmer said she's basically already been quarantining with her co-workers anyway.
"It seemed like a safe and good idea to get creative and process some of what we do in the time of this pandemic," Palmer said.
The connection, both musical and physical, has become more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when patients are unable to have family or friends by their side for comfort because of virus fears.
"We're sitting by their side, holding their hand, wiping their tears, hugging them," said Henderson. "We might be the last hand holding, the last smile, the last word they hear, the last voice they hear. So, yeah, we step in gladly."
The caregivers in Palmer's and Henderson's unit focus on patients who have a life-threatening and incurable illness. Some patients are at the end of their lives or are preparing to enter hospice.
During a recent co-writing session, Palmer and Henderson sat at a kitchen table jotting down phrases and ideas for lyrics. They both remember many of their patients vividly and the small intimate moments they've shared.
They wrote the song "Stop For a Minute," which starts with the description of rushing to check on a patient's call light. Henderson was inspired by a female patient who asked the nurse to sit with her and hold her hand.
Paul Raymond, the nurse manager for the palliative care unit and a musician and songwriter himself, co-wrote a song with Palmer called "Take Good Care," in Raymond's home studio.
Raymond has been playing guitar and songwriting since high school as a creative outlet. He hoped that other medical staff are finding an emotional release in the group songwriting exercise, as well as opening people's eyes to what they do.
"If we can shed some light into the world of nurses and working with people in a really vulnerable time in their lives, then all the better," Raymond said.
Nursing, especially for those who work in palliative care, isn't for the faint of heart, he said.
"Certainly, it can be emotionally difficult, but it's absolutely the most rewarding thing you do," Raymond said. "It's a real gift to be in the same space as somebody who is preparing to leave this Earth and to die."