Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA), some of the state’s hospitals will fight pandemic exhaustion among their frontline employees next year with a new weapon: music therapy.

PCA encouraged health-care providers to apply for the creative arts funding, and the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) won with its proposal to try using the universal appeal of music to soothe frayed nerves and help burned-out, grieving workers cope with the pain of 20 months of relentless work and fear of COVID-19 infection.

It has chosen the first round of recipients from eastern Pennsylvania, including four from the Philadelphia region: Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, Jefferson Health, Pottstown Hospital, and Temple University Hospital-Episcopal Campus. Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center was also chosen. HAP worked with the PA Music Therapy Task Force to choose recipients. The task force also has recommended board-certified music therapists to help hospitals carry out their plans.

“I just find music incredibly comforting and therapeutic,” said Bea Leyden, senior vice president for nursing practice, learning, and scholarship at Jefferson Health. “Right away, when I heard about it, it appealed to me,” she said of the grant. “We’re just looking for out-of-the-box ways to support our staff.”

Beth Murray, a nurse who is readmissions project manager at HAP and helped design and administer the grant, said her organization was looking for ways to foster a resilient workforce. “I just can’t even imagine what they’re going through,” she said of hospital staffers. “Anything that can give them some reprieve, … build their resiliency to get through this, is invaluable.”

Hospitals plan to study the impact of music therapy. Previous studies have found it can help improve mood, well-being, and health, HAP said.

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Each hospital received $25,000, said Liam Migdail, HAP’s director of media relations. The grants will be awarded in three waves. The first went to eastern Pennsylvania providers. The Pittsburgh area will come next, followed by the rest of the state and rural hospitals.

Each hospital or health system will use the grant funding differently. Episcopal Hospital, for example, already has three music therapists who work with patients but not fellow employees. Most of the hospital’s 139 beds are dedicated to patients with behavioral health problems. The hospital’s therapists are developing two series of classes that will begin in February and April for people who work in the busy emergency department and the Crisis Response Center, a unit where patients with substance use and behavioral health issues are transferred after being stabilized.

Maegan Tomasello, one of Episcopal’s music therapists, said she often uses music to help people process feelings. She said many staff members have discovered during the pandemic that they “had a lot of built-up emotions.” Lindsy Burns, another music therapist, is also a certified clinical trauma specialist and is interested in how “trauma is stored in the body.” She likes to use music to help people relax.

Both are aware that working with colleagues could be a little more awkward than helping patients. “We are not going in with the intention to go to a very deep and vulnerable place,” Burns said.

AnnMarie Papa, vice president and chief nursing officer at Einstein Montgomery, said the grant will give her hospital the “seed money” to start a music therapy program that will start with employees but will expand to patients. “We were just so thrilled to be selected,” she said.

She thinks of the program as “psychological PPE,” or personal protective equipment. It will begin with two units: an intensive care unit and a telemetry unit where COVID-19 patients are treated. The details are still being worked out, but she expects a combination of group and individual sessions.

Papa said staff members are excited that the hospital is doing something positive for them. Many are worn out. “There was hope in the summer that things were getting a little better and now we’re getting back to it again,” she said. Some are struggling, she said, with how they feel about patients who could have prevented their illness with vaccination.

Until now, the Jefferson system has had music therapy only for patients at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. The grant will allow it to offer music therapy to nursing units at two hospitals that have not yet been selected, Leyden said. Because it’s so hard to get nurses to leave their units, part of the program may be calming, “restorative” music that staff can hear in common areas like lounges. There will also be individual sessions, virtual music therapy sessions, and possibly a group that can compose and perform music.