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Communicating Beyond Words

Music Therapist Islene Runningdeer Soothes Gifford Patients

  • Islene Runningdeer sings Sunrise, Sunset, from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, to residents of the Menig Extended Care facility at Gifford Hospital in Randolph last month. In addition to playing for hospice patients, Runningdeer performs for a wider audience at the nursing home every Friday.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Islene Runningdeer sings Sunrise, Sunset, from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, to residents of the Menig Extended Care facility at Gifford Hospital in Randolph last month. In addition to playing for hospice patients, Runningdeer performs for a wider audience at the nursing home every Friday.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • LNA Christie Blodgett dances with Menig Resident Fran Chapman as Islene Runningdeer plays the piano.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    LNA Christie Blodgett dances with Menig Resident Fran Chapman as Islene Runningdeer plays the piano.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Islene Runningdeer plays a variety of soothing songs for residents of the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt., on a recent Friday. Runningdeer believes that music is able to calm the residents — even the ones who are mostly unresponsive. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Islene Runningdeer plays a variety of soothing songs for residents of the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt., on a recent Friday. Runningdeer believes that music is able to calm the residents — even the ones who are mostly unresponsive.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Islene Runningdeer plays for elderly residents at the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt. Runningdeer plays a mix of classical, showtunes, and "oldies" to relax and entertain residents. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Islene Runningdeer plays for elderly residents at the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt. Runningdeer plays a mix of classical, showtunes, and "oldies" to relax and entertain residents.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Islene Runningdeer sings Sunrise, Sunset, from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, to residents of the Menig Extended Care facility at Gifford Hospital in Randolph last month. In addition to playing for hospice patients, Runningdeer performs for a wider audience at the nursing home every Friday.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • LNA Christie Blodgett dances with Menig Resident Fran Chapman as Islene Runningdeer plays the piano.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Islene Runningdeer plays a variety of soothing songs for residents of the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt., on a recent Friday. Runningdeer believes that music is able to calm the residents — even the ones who are mostly unresponsive. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Islene Runningdeer plays for elderly residents at the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt. Runningdeer plays a mix of classical, showtunes, and "oldies" to relax and entertain residents. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Islene Runningdeer treats patients when hope of a cure no longer remains. And not with complex medical procedures or sterile hospital rooms, but with music.

Called in to play and sing at the bedsides of patients nearing the end of life, Runningdeer is a music therapist for Gifford Medical Center’s Advanced Illness Care Team in Randolph.

For her, music can be an evocative medium; she has seen its “wordless emotion” break down long held bitterness or stubborn self-reliance and open a door to reconciliation and healing.

Runningdeer’s first book, Musical Encounters with the Dying, was released in early July, offering a glimpse into the deep emotion and poignant relationships that define her profession.

The book underscores the caregiver-patient relationship as the cornerstone of her work, and features stories about patients who both embrace and combat their inevitable fate. Runningdeer highlights one patient’s optimism and another’s unrelenting stubbornness, telling the stories of many other individuals, each of whom faces death in a unique and personal manner.

“It’s a guide to working with people at the end of life,” she explained. “There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty.”

The book will be marketed to medical and music therapy schools, hospice organizations and other health professionals, as well as to a more general audience. “It’s not just a didactic, academic read.”

At her home in Brookfield, Vt., Runningdeer discussed her work and philosophy on life, sharing her depth of knowledge gained from 13 years of music therapy experience.

Even at first meeting, Runningdeer, 64, seemed to exude a nearly tangible sense of calm and her soft, melodic voice and tinkling laugh floated through the screened-in porch like a breeze. From the porch’s wicker chairs, the view stretches along the single-lane dirt road and beyond a grassy field and the forested hills to the east.

The serenity, however, offered an incongruous backdrop for a conversation centered largely on death and dying. But Runningdeer shrugged off our culture’s taboo treatment of the subject.

“It’s something we just don’t talk about,” she said. “People don’t sit around the breakfast table and talk about dying or how they feel about dying. We talk about all the other stages of life, getting married, or going to college, but never the final piece.”

Her work aims to foster that conversation between patients and their loved ones.

Contracted out by Gifford, Runningdeer often works in the hospital itself, in the Menig Extended Care Facility, the hospital’s attached nursing home, or in Gifford’s Garden Room, a suite specifically for dying patients and their families.

In playing for and with her patients, Runningdeer’s primary instrument is the piano, and she often accompanies herself on vocals. At times she’ll play various percussion instruments, “fool around” on the dulcimer, or simply sing a capella.

“I wheel my Yamaha electric piano into the room and I set it up next to the bed,” she explained. “I play music appropriate for the physical needs, as well as the emotional and spiritual needs.” Often, she’ll help the patient slow and calm his breathing and induce relaxation through quiet classical music or gentle sounds.

As a demonstration, Runningdeer took out a Shruti box, an Indian bellows instrument made of smooth, dark wood. As she opened and closed the bellows, the box emitted a deep, swelling drone, a sound both calming and resonant.

Runningdeer changed the tones by manually pivoting the small wooden slats on the side of the box, and raised her clear voice in accompaniment, singing a few rising notes as a garnish to the low tones.

“If the patient is days away from dying, it wouldn’t be bombastic singing.” She paused, and grinned. “But in other situations, it might be.”

A musician from the start, Runningdeer studied classical piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. She ran piano studios in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, her birthplace, before she relocated to Chelsea in 1990, where she taught private lessons.

Runningdeer’s transition to music therapy was largely unforeseen. One of her students, whom she calls Jean in the book, was diagnosed with brain cancer, thus beginning Runningdeer’s first on-the-job music therapy training. For two years, she taught, played for and spent time with Jean, discovering the power of music in bringing comfort and peace.

“Sound is just vibration of matter,” she said, considering music’s almost universal power to affect people. “We are vibration, there is sound inside of us and around us and we live in the midst of sound. Music is powerful energy. That’s why I call music therapy ‘energy medicine’.”

Runningdeer eventually returned to school, getting an interdisciplinary master’s degree in music, therapy and counseling, at the University of Vermont.

In 2000, Runningdeer proposed starting a hospice music therapy program to Diana Peirce, then director of Vermont Home Health and Hospice, a non-profit hospice agency based in Barre, Vt. Despite Peirce’s initial uncertainty, a month-long trial with four patients was enough for Runningdeer to convince her.

“People were sleeping better. Several were able to do wonderful life review. It helped with pain control.” Runningdeer said, listing the numerous benefits. She was hired the following year and for the next decade, played in the homes of hospice patients with months, days, or even hours left to live. It was not so much playing for them, Runningdeer said, but playing, and being, with them.

Runningdeer was hired by Gifford in 2011, the same year she moved to Brookfield. She works part time, depending on patients’ needs, and is paid by the Last Mile Ride, the hospital’s yearly motorcycle ride fundraiser. “I come when they call,” she said simply.

“The idea of having a music therapist at a small hospital—that was really a gift,” physician Jonna Goulding said of Runningdeer’s arrival at Gifford. A family doctor and palliative care physician, Goulding also serves as the chairwoman of the Advanced Illness Care Team at Gifford.

“When patients are unable to communicate what they’re going through, music and the arts are a way to crack open doors so that they can be supported in their journeys,” Goulding continued. Music therapy “can change the entire feeling in the room when people are scared or angry or suffering.”

With a growing team of creative therapists and volunteers that she oversees, Deb Steele, manager of Support Service Programming at Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, also pointed to the benefits of music therapy. “Some of the research shows that music and rhythm helps the left brain and helps to calm that system,” Steele said. “That then affects the nervous system, which in turn affects the endocrine system and then the immune system.”

Steele, who herself has a master’s degree in art therapy, hopes to see alternative therapies covered by insurance and eventually become more prominent in hospitals. “Music and the arts affect the mind-body connection,” she said. “They’re not to take the place of standard care, but they complement it. And there are obviously no negative side effects.”

Inside Runningdeer’s small cape, rays of sun linger on the clean wood floors, lending a carefree quality to the space. A glossy Yamaha grand piano stands regally in a corner, in front of shelves and shelves of music; her repertoire ranges from Joplin to Broadway classics, French songs and classical music, which Runningdeer deems her “first love.”

In both introducing her patients to new music and playing their old favorites, Runningdeer cultivates opportunities for open dialogue and authentic emotion. Often, she said, families will weep, releasing months or years of pent-up sadness or stress.

“Islene is a very gentle person and she enters a room very gracefully,” Goulding said. “The gentleness and wisdom together and the talent she has in music form the perfect mix in a therapist.”

In many ways, these candid moments can result in invaluable and fulfilling reflection. “The process of end of life and dying can be a really rich time to finish things;” Runningdeer said. “To have an accounting of what we’ve done, accepting our weaknesses and accepting things we weren’t able to do, forgiving ourselves and others. Forgiveness is a very important part of it.”

As death is an ever-present reality in her work, she has also come to accept its inescapable progression in her own life. It’s a topic she’s broached when she spends time her granddaughter Olivia, who’s 5.

“She’s so open about it that she’ll ask me when I’m going to die,” Runningdeer said. “I tell her, ‘Honey, I don’t know, but I’m taking really good care of myself so I can spend time with you.”

Runningdeer shrugged. “I accept that I’m going to die. But I’m so in love with living right now that I hope I have a while longer.”