Music – Universal Language For Patients

Admitted to IU Health University Hospital for treatment of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Mike Palm discovered a special way to relate to fellow patients – his music.

The sterile hospital room is more than two hours from Mike Palm’s Starke County home. He’d prefer to be sitting on the front porch, strumming his guitar, and watching the wild turkeys and coyote roaming his 110-acre homestead. But on a recent weekday, he lifted his glossy acoustic with the tortoise shell pick guard and began strumming a tune that rang throughout the fifth floor bone marrow transplant unit of University Hospital.

The music quickly captured the attention of patients and caregivers.

“The patients came out of their rooms to listen and before long we had a jam session at the nurse’s station,” said Emily Caudill, a board-certified music therapist with CompleteLife Program at IU Health Simon Cancer Center. She joined on fiddle, and Juan Ferres, spouse of another patient, joined in on drums.

When he knew he was going to be in a hospital 138 miles from home, Mike Palm said he knew he’d have to have his guitar. He was first diagnosed last September with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a cancer of the myeloid blood cells characterized by rapid growth of abnormal cells. He recently underwent a stem cell transplant and hopes he’s on the road to recovery.

And for a few minutes, his music takes him away from the fear and anxiety of his disease. It helps him cope with missing his country home – hunting and horseback riding, and his family – his wife Toni, son and two daughters. And it helps him connect with other patients.   

“I hadn’t been here long at all when I met another guy who had a guitar,” said Palm. Sometimes when he wakes up for 3 a.m. blood draws he says he’ll just grab his guitar and stay awake. He loves to sing along to a variety of tunes ranging from Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

The funny thing is, Palm, who is 63, didn’t learn to play guitar until he was in his 30s.

“I guess it’s like everything else you set your mind to – whether it’s beating a disease or learning to play an instrument – you just do it,” said Palm. “I was 38 and it was one of the best decisions I made to take lessons. Every day I’d walk by my guitar and I’d pick it up and practice my cords. I’m so glad I stuck with it. Music is a universal language. It’s introduced me to other patients and it’s doing everything to help me with my healing.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
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