Even though 2020 is in the rear-view mirror, COVID-19 is not. The pandemic rages on. It has changed the world and the way we live, and while people have been affected differently, there’s one side effect most everyone has experienced: the feeling of anxiety over situations that are in many ways beyond our control.
No one knows that better than healthcare workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic daily, like Stephen Miller, DO. He works in the VCU Medical Center main hospital’s emergency room and feels the pressure every day.
“I’m a father of three. I have young kids and a wife who is a school teacher. The challenge, like with so many others, is managing how to best keep families safe. How to best keep mentally positive. That has been an extreme challenge,” says Dr. Miller, who shared his comments in a VCU Health YouTube video showcasing frontline workers.
Lisa Brath, MD, in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at VCU Health, finds it challenging because it seems that “for some reason if people haven’t been impacted by it [COVID-19], it’s easy to think it isn’t a big deal or doesn’t exist.”
Of course, it does exist and it is a big deal. And healthcare workers around the world have strategies for managing the range of emotions caused by the spread of COVID-19.
In Richmond, area healthcare workers are members of the VCU Health Orchestra, known as Music and Medicine, and some of those individuals turn to music to help combat stress.
Music is part of firefighter and paramedic Paul Budinger’s soul. “It speaks to a part of me that transcends words and actions,” says Budinger, who is assistant conductor, plays tuba, and also works for the Colonial Heights fire department. “I see my surroundings in a different light. It’s an outlet that helps me relax and translate my fear and anxiety…into something that can be beautiful.”
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has placed “a mental and physical toll on us,” he says. “Resources are thin, and we may have to work overtime to fill different shifts.”
The pandemic makes life unpredictable, and Budinger says he needs to have something predictable in his life. “I need something that brings me joy, something positive at a time when it’s so easy to become disheartened,” he says.
When people lose control over a situation, they may panic, and in the medical field, “you can’t panic. You are the one delivering care. The patient needs to rely on you being the steady hand and to care for them when they have no control over what’s going on with their bodies,” he says.
When he was younger, Budinger poured his heart and soul into playing the tuba. And now, he channels that passion into his work and the orchestra. “The orchestra helps me realize that music is an integral part of me. If it weren’t for music, I don’t know where I would be. Music helps me understand myself better,” he says.
“These are people who love music, but chose to go the medical route to help people. It’s cool that people have the same passion,” he says, adding, “Even though we can’t play together right now, we still have the opportunity to know we are still together and making beautiful sounds but a little differently this year.”
Budinger learned about the orchestra from his wife, Neil, an occupational therapist who plays flute in the orchestra. “A lot of people in the medical profession have an affinity for music. We rarely get to use that,” she says. “It’s good for people to see that you can follow your passion for music, as well as your career in medicine.”
Music gives Neil a way to express herself without using words, she adds. “Some things are hard to express through words, and it’s good to be able to do that with music.”
Bringing Music to the Masses
Music and Medicine’s co-founder and executive director, Theresa Erichsen, a registered nurse who works in community workforce development at VCU Health System, started the orchestra in October 2017 with Francesco Celi, MD.
“Music has always been a part of my life. That is who I am,” says Erichsen, who plays the French horn and is also a member of the Richmond Philharmonic Orchestra and founding member of The National Association of Medical Orchestras. “Part of my role in the health system is project management. I went to my boss and gave her the idea for an orchestra. We started with twelve people and have grown to seventy-five musicians on our roster with about forty to fifty members at any performance.”
Erichsen never thought her hobby would become a second career for her – creating an orchestra program within the VCU Health System. “I truly had the good fortune to blend my two passions. All the hard work is worth it,” she says.
The orchestra is comprised of medical professionals, students, VCU faculty, staff, and community members. “Eighty percent of the members are medical professionals, but we do welcome community musicians,” Erichsen says. It has a full range of ages – from college students up to members in their eighties – and a professional and culturally diverse membership.
Pre-pandemic, the orchestra performed up to six times a year. It is the orchestra in residence at Firehouse Theatre and has a partnership with the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart as well as Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.
“We had our last [live] performance in March at Maggie Walker. Their conductor liked us so much that now she plays with us,” Erichsen says.
Other partnerships in the community include Classical Revolution RVA, World Pediatric Project, and Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Children’s Pavilion.
The orchestra plays all types of music, from classical to pop. “We offer something for everyone,” Erichsen says.
Rehearsals pre-COVID-19 normally took place on the second floor of the cafeteria at the VCU Medical Center on Wednesday evening so members who were on staff could attend easily. “People would get their food and come and listen to us,” Erichsen says. “It’s convenient and it’s also community service. That has been an important part of our outreach.”
With the spread of COVID-19, live rehearsals and performances stopped. “Every week, I get an email from a member about how much they miss the music and us being together,” she says.
In December, the orchestra created a livestream and pre-recorded performance for VCU Health employees. “We put something together at Firehouse with all safety measures in place,” Erichsen says, noting there were only a handful of musicians on hand. “We wanted to give back to the healthcare workers who are working so hard.”
Erichsen never realized how many medical professionals are also musicians until she started the orchestra.
“I always performed in musical groups, but there were only one or two medical professionals in the groups where I participated,” she says. “It’s been exciting to see how many of us there are along with that high level of performance.”
All in the Orchestral Family
Natalia O’Brien, concertmaster and violinist and student outreach coordinator for the VCU School of Medicine, misses seeing and talking to people in the orchestra face to face.
“A few months after COVID started, we wanted to make sure our orchestra would continue to be engaged, and that we were on people’s radars,” says O’Brien who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic for her music education. “We have a fantastic team with an array of expertise, and it’s very collaborative. We also have a lot of virtual projects on the books, and I am very involved with that as well. It keeps me motivated and engaged, and it certainly contributes to my wellbeing during these unprecedented times.”
O’Brien finds joy in playing the violin solo, but being in an orchestra takes that joy to the next level, she says. “Having that musical conversation between sections and/or individuals in an orchestra and being part of that communal sound is an amazing feeling.”
Community player Jane Kiser also loves being a member of the orchestra and misses the personal interactions during rehearsals. “I feel this need to be part of a group,” says Kiser, a pharmacist at Parham Doctor’s Hospital who plays the oboe and English horn. “When you work in pharmacy, you have stress. In general, it’s nice to turn that off and play music. It’s a great outlet, being in the middle of the group and producing something that sounds beautiful.”
Orchestral music makes an impact on the audience as well. “I would say music is a great dose of medicine for those who play and those who listen,” O’Brien says.
Since the start of the pandemic, life has become even more hectic for Janine Holley, a physician’s assistant and cellist as well as the mother of two girls, ages ten and thirteen. Music has been an important outlet for her. “The members of the orchestra still pick up their instruments and play and do videos together. It helps me have balance in my life,” says Holley who also plays with the Petersburg Symphony.
It’s seeing the joy on the faces of people who come to performances that helps Joe Ornato, MD, forget about stress. He had played professionally from the age of eleven to twenty-two, but turned into what he calls an occasional trumpet player as he got older. Joining the orchestra was an opportunity for him to do “something I really, really love,” says Ornato, who is a professor in the department of emergency medicine at VCU Health.
He is proud of the orchestra and the harmonious environment it has created. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to have all that challenge and burden of day-to-day life just disappear for the time we are together,” he says.
He likes the fact that there is no such thing as rank when the orchestra is together. “Titles disappear. Everyone relates to one another on a first-name basis. That’s the beauty of it,” he says. “It’s a very different environment. We thoroughly enjoy and cherish being with one another. It’s a quiet, wonderful place we can all go to where we can share friendship and our personal abilities to create music.”
Rehearsing with the orchestra was something Tatiana McIntyre looked forward to every week, but now she connects with her peers online. “Since COVID-19, it has been a little disappointing, but the leadership in the program has done a good job of keeping people connected through email and doing videos, which have turned out well,” says McIntyre, a fourth-year medical student at VCU School of Medicine.
Music is an outlet for her emotions. “I can leave all the stress of my day behind and do something fun that I am good at,” she says. “I hope to always keep playing music. It’s what makes me, me, and makes me unique. It’s a huge part of my life.”
Members of the orchestra count on each other during every performance, even if those are fewer in-person and more online during the pandemic. “It’s a collective joy, something that is a we, not an I,” says Ornato. “It’s a we achievement and that is something that is very, very special.”
Photos: Courtesy VCU Health Orchestra, Mimi Peperdy, Kara Dods, Giao Phan, Niel Budinger, Tom Baise, Joe Ornato