Music To Your Ears: Woman Plays Harp to Help Comfort Sick

Music is a language that speaks to the soul. It can bring a party to life, a feeling of understanding to the misunderstood, or even healing for those who are ill.

That's exactly what one woman in Wisconsin Rapids is doing through her harp playing and patients and hospital staff at Riverview Medical Center said this harp is music to their ears.

Sue Popelka and her heavenly harp named after her mother wander the hospital halls throughout the week looking for patients to play for.

"I always tell them, this (harp) is Edna and then I go wash my hands over there while they talk to Edna," said Popelka.

"We also get a lot of people asking for her to come back to other patients because they can hear it in the hallways and it's very successful," said Riverview Nurse, Shannon Skerven.

Popelka is currently doing this as part of an internship required for her to become a Certified Musical Practitioner. It's similar to a Musical Therapist and the two fields often work together, but while therapists have an agenda to help cure a patient, Popelka is simply providing individual patients and their families a moment of peace. So far, she's put in 32 of her 45 hours and has seen just short 100 patients.

"You might have a patient who's in pain or confused or anxious and she comes on in and you just get this nice, calming soothing affect for the patient," said Skerven. "It's really quite miraculous."

This New York-based program she's apart of is called Music for Healing and Transition. She can work with four patient categories: acute patients, so those suffering from heart attacks, strokes, or other severe conditions, she'll play songs with about 50-70 beats per minute at a steady rate. Non-acute patients, or those healing a broken leg or who are going to give birth she can play a range of different songs. For cognitively impaired patients, she usually will play music from their childhood. For those actively dying she'll play only when they're breathing as she does not want them to become attach to music; she wants them to let go.

Popelka said this program started when a woman asked if she could play her harp to her father who was in a coma and not expected to live.

"He ended up waking up and the doctors were amazed as his heart rate started to entrain with the music she was playing. It was a steady beat of 50 beats per minute and they watch his heart rate come down," she said.

Popelka has been playing the harp for only the last three years, but she's been playing piano for 51.

"Went to a harp concert with my mom when I was eight and said I want to play the harp and she said, 'we have seven kids, I don't work outside the home, be lucky you can take piano lessons.'"

She knew her mother loved harp music, however, so when she passed away from cancer three years ago, she picked one up and started taking lessons.

"I played the harp at church and people afterwards would tell me how peaceful it was and the pastor came up and said, 'look at the people when you play. It's like everybody else does everything; they're talking, they're singing, they're looking at bulletins, but there's like this full peace that comes across for them,'" she said.

That's when she decided to go into the program. She said "it's all about the patients." A patient she once played for summed up what she tries to get across: "I felt the vibrations of your music throughout my whole body, but I also feel peace in my soul."

"A cancer patient telling me this is the worst day of my life because I was told I'm terminal but now it's been the best day of my life because you played show tunes for me. For 10 minutes I took away the evilness of the world," she said.

She didn't realize how much her help would really help her.

"They say it's going to hit you in places that you never realized it would, and it did. It's like, it's become my heart. This whole program, it has, it really has. I just can't imagine not doing it."

Popelka plans to finish the program in mid to late August. After graduating, she said she would like to continue working at Riverview, as Wisconsin Rapids is where she grew up.

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