I’ve been working as an occupational therapist with stroke patients for the past three years. It’s a privilege to be let into people’s lives and to get to know them and their families; but if they’re not getting better, it can be heartbreaking.
Working for a full stroke service in Hull, I am always busy. It is stressful and even though I know we do a good job, we always know we could be doing better if only we had the time to sit down and really work it out. Although the day-to-day reality of my job is always different, I could never have envisaged the impact one project would have on me, my colleagues and our patients.
In December 2014, I was asked to go to a workshop with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), which was coming to run music sessions with us as part of its community outreach work.
We met Tim Steiner from the RPO to brainstorm what the issues might be for people with cognitive and physical problems. My first thought was: “We’re very busy, how are we going to fit this in?” I’ve done group work before and while it can be really powerful, it’s hard. I was concerned but I could also see this was an amazing opportunity if we could pull it off.
We went through the instruments and thought about the problems that someone attending the group might have – from whether they could hold it to any discomfort they might experience. We adapted some of the instruments and arranged for a healthcare professional to sit with patients who might have problems concentrating, communicating or processing information at speed.
At the first session with the patients, none of us, not even the therapists, really knew what we were doing or what was going to happen. I was very nervous. The instruments looked like the ones we had used at school and I was worried that it would be a bit demeaning. But by the end of the session, we’d structured this incredible piece of music and that suddenly made me realise what this could potentially do.
Over the course of the project, Strokestra, I saw all these people go on a similar journey. At first, they felt embarrassed to pick up an instrument and make a sound. But after six months we did a performance of the work they had done in the city hall.
I remember how Steiner set us a task where we all had to clap at the same time and hold a rhythm. He’d stop and we’d carry on because we weren’t paying attention. It seems trivial but it was so funny and it helped us realise that it was OK to make mistakes and not be perfect. A lot of people told us this was the first time they had belly laughed since their stroke.
There were also times when people broke down in tears. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to realise what they’ve lost and Strokestra brought that into focus. Because the group became such good friends and everybody had been through a similar thing, people could understand and knew what that person was experiencing.
I noticed a change in confidence among the participants. Some people would come in their wheelchair but by the end, they’d start to walk. I saw a massive improvement in concentration.
I’m reticent to say that the group directly impacted on things, but I definitely saw some people being able to process information better and I wonder if it helped one person return to driving. It feels like that was part of his journey.
I love my job and I think what I do is really important but I have been doing it a long time and sometimes you can forget what you do, what you contribute and the importance of it. Strokestra brought that into sharp relief. I saw myself through a new set of eyes and thought: “Actually, what I do is pretty cool.”
Having an orchestra come in to help us was snazzy but I felt that I had an ownership of the project. It was about therapy and how we were using this music to help people recover. They were bringing their expertise of music and how to structure a music group and we were helping them with how we needed to adapt things for people with particular needs.
We’ve not stopped since. We’re running our own groups using music in one of our rehab units. We’re starting small but we’ve got big ideas to run this for the long-term. It’s given us the confidence to use music in therapy and to have an orchestra come and show us the potential of it has given us the confidence to carry on.
link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIYpkD5oYec