Steven Eaise was 47 years old when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015. The loving husband, father and musician went through chemotherapy and was in remission for about a year when the cancer returned. This time, it had metastasized throughout his body.
‘Music therapists go an extra mile and use the Heartbeat Project to help patients suffering from chronic conditions like heart failure, dementia, cancer, lung transplant and other.’
His wife, Susie, says he was happiest when he was surrounded by friends and family, while playing the drums during church services. "That was one of his favorite things to do," Susie Eaise said. "He started playing as a teenager. It was fun to watch him play because you could tell he was enjoying himself and was really at peace. He really had fun with it."
Steven passed away in November while he was being cared for at the Center for Palliative and Supportive Care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; but a unique part of him lives on, thanks to a music therapy initiative called the Heartbeat Project.
Music therapists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recorded Steven's heartbeat, then incorporated it into a song, using his heartbeat in place of the drums. The Eaises were given a recording of the song after he passed away.
"I've listened to it several times, and it is like some part of him is still living," Susie said. "Your heartbeat is part of what gives you life, and being able to listen to his again is very comforting."
Susie says the process of making the recording was therapeutic for her and for her family. "They asked my son, Matthew, to pick out a song to go with it," she said. "They let him be involved with the process, and that gave him something to focus on besides the fact that his father was dying."
Matthew chose the song "By Your Side" by Tenth Avenue North. UAB music therapist Mary Fair, MT-BC, who sang the lyrics and played the guitar for the recording, says it was a perfect choice. "The lyrics say, 'I'll be by your side wherever you fall, in the dead of night whenever you call. Please don't fight these hands that are holding me because my hands are holding you,'" Fair said. "His heartbeat was also able to be the drum in the song, which we really wanted to do since he was a drummer."
Matthew says the recording keeps him connected to his father and especially to the lessons he taught him while he was alive. "It has inspired me to keep pushing on when I'm feeling down," Matthew Eaise said. "I have times when I just want to lie in bed and sulk; but that song reminds me that isn't what God wants, and it reminds me of what my dad directly told me not to do."
As for what Steven would think of the recording? "I think he would really like the idea of it, but I think he would especially like that a part of him continues to make a difference in our lives," Susie Eaise said. "He wouldn't want us to be sad, but he would like that we have something to cherish."
A coping mechanism
The Heartbeat Project at UAB began with music therapist Kim Hamrick. "I view it mostly as a legacy project," Hamrick said. "I wanted to give loved ones something tangible that they can take with them after their family member passes away."
Before she could get started, she had to create her own recording device. She ordered a stethoscope with a microphone inside of it, then had to come up with her own recording system. "We hook the stethoscope up to an iPad to record the heartbeat, then use GarageBand to edit it into the recording of us singing and playing the guitar to whatever song the family or patient chooses," Hamrick said.
While the recording is primarily a way to remember a loved one, the process of creating the song is a way to help the family cope while the patient is dying. "It gives them something else to think about, something to control," she said. "In these scenarios, there isn't much family members can do while a loved one is dying. The project gives them something else to think about and participate in to make a positive memory, even though it is created in a sad situation."
At UAB, music therapists primarily use the Heartbeat Project with patients in palliative care, but they have also used it to help parents of infants in the neonatal unit. "I wrote a lullaby with the mother of a baby who was born with congenital anomalies and was going to pass away," Hamrick said. "Now she has a recording of her child's heartbeat and can always listen to it."
Treating the patient and the patient's family
Palliative care, which is not limited to end-of-life care, is a more personalized approach to health care. The goal is to relieve suffering and provide the best possible quality of life for both patients and their families.
"The phrase we often use is 'an extra layer of care,'" said Rodney Tucker, M.D., director of the UAB Center for Palliative and Supportive Care. "By that, we mean an extra dimension of support for a broad spectrum of patients with serious conditions such as heart failure, dementia, cancer, lung transplant and others. As an interdisciplinary team, we try to address all the domains of suffering: physical, psychosocial, emotional and spiritual, because clinical data indicate that, when you address a whole person, you consistently get better outcomes."
The team of caregivers includes doctors, nurses, chaplains and holistic specialists like music therapists. According to Susie Eaise, the latter is what brought her husband the most peace. "The only time Steven would calm down was when the music therapist was playing for him. When they would leave, he would become restless again," Susie Eaise said.
While she was caring for him, the palliative team cared for her and her family. "I couldn't walk out of the room without someone saying, 'Can I get you anything, are you OK?' They made sure we took care of ourselves so we were able to be with him," she said.
The Eaise family was brought to the Center for Palliative and Supportive Care with the help of Jackie Palmore, the center's palliative care coordinator. Palmore met them through a hospice home visit. "It was a different ballgame when they got here because it was very difficult at home," Palmore said. "Getting him here and supporting the family, it was like everything changed for them."
"You do sometimes feel very much alone, and they were there so I didn't feel quite as alone," Susie Eaise said. "I felt like somebody cared. Their support and compassion kept me going. The palliative team and the music therapists were a blessing." And as the palliative team supported the Eaise family while they were in the hospital, Steven's heartbeat continues to do the same. Only this time, his heartbeat is his instrument - his drum.