For the love of baseball and music: a Boston Hope Music story

After entering Gate D at Fenway Park, John had his temperature taken and verified that he was symptom-free. As he rounded the corner, his friend heard him whisper through his mask, “I think this is real.” He was referring to the calming sounds of a string trio emanating from the concourse, next to the FIELD BOX 54-70 sign. Vaccine day was finally here, now literally music to his ears. Indeed, later this month, “vaccination nation” will travel to the Hynes Convention Center as the Red Sox prepare for the return of baseball, and hope, to a city that remains in the recovery phase of COVID.

It was approximately one year ago when Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, Mass General Brigham (MGB), Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Atrius Health, and Suffolk Construction came together at lightning speed to create a thousand-bed COVID-19 field hospital in nine days at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC). Brigadier General Jack Hammond and Michael Allard of Home Base, Drs. Giles Boland and Jeanette Ives Erickson of MGB led the eager team of nurses, doctors, rehabilitation, operational and facility staff in collaboration with The Army National Guard and Reserves. General Hammond would call this unprecedented mission Boston Hope, which opened on April 1, 2020.

Over two months, Boston Hope cared for 723 people. It was clear from day one that the recipe for recovery was not driven solely by medicine, oxygen, and physical therapy. It was the blend of art and medicine which created the best atmosphere for healing the hidden “wounds” of COVID. The Boston Hope Music (BHM) team, a group of clinicians and musicians, was started within days of opening the hospital. Music was prescribed just like a loading bolus of intravenous antiviral, followed by three times per day prescriptions of musical doses targeting Energy (morning), Engagement (noon), and Evening Calm (night).

BHM was embedded into the medical-rehabilitation team, delivering just the right (and safe) amount of in-person live as well as streamed musical doses. Nearly one hundred musicians donated virtual performances, including Boston’s singer-songwriters like Jenee Halstead, and Cambridge’s own Yo-Yo Ma. The music allowed both patients and staff to engage, listen, and breathe together, dampening some of the day’s stress. Classical, Latin, jazz, and rock “prescriptions” were offered to hundreds of patients, whether in their beds or strolling with oxygen around the BCEC. Boston Hope had a greater than fifty percent Spanish-speaking population, and daily Latinx music seemed magnetic, drawing people together from across Boston, smiling and even dancing alongside one another.

In early June 2020, Boston Hope discharged the last patient as Sweet Caroline played like a megaphone as the entire staff gathered for a celebratory procession. Although the hospital was closing its doors, the BHM team continued its work over weekly Zoom meetings, as it was immediately clear that music healing, like recovery and rehabilitation, operates beyond a building or hospital.

Composed of members from MGB, Harvard Med’s Arts and Humanities Initiative, Eureka Ensemble, Winsor Music, and New England Conservatory (NEC), the BHM team continues to offer music to the community in new forms. For morning, noon, and night, the curated musical doses that had been created for the Boston Hope patients and staff are delivered to caregivers and patients through social media and email. Recognizing the desperate need to heal our healers, a new music program was launched last fall at MGH with weekly virtual lessons with NEC students. Violin, voice, trumpet, and piano lessons were offered, introducing or in some cases rekindling a love of music for more than fifteen health care workers over eight weeks culminating in a virtual performance for colleagues. A Spring semester is now in session. Through a recent BHM project in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, veterans who had lost many friends at the Soldiers’ Home In Holyoke, can experience a variety of both nostalgic and energizing music with Virtual Bedside Concerts.

In January 2021, when a cathedral in Salisbury, England, opened its doors as a COVID-19 vaccination site, it offered healing and music, as a pipe organ played for hundreds of people waiting their turn. Awe-inspired, BHM set out to offer their own musical accompaniment to Boston area vaccination sites. Partnering with The Red Sox Foundation, BHM has offered healing familiar and beautiful sounds filling Fenway Park’s concourse amidst historic murals, concession stands, and ticket kiosks. For the newly vaccinated, like John at Fenway Park, this reemergence of live music is part of the healing process and perhaps adds a glimpse of the return to normalcy we all hope for.

A year can seem long or short, depending on how we judge it, but it has been heartening to witness this arc of recovery, from the early days of surge and uncertainty to current vaccination efforts underway. Looking back over twelve months, the aptly named Boston Hope planted a seed in the form of music for Boston Hope Music to grow for patients and staff, and now for the citizens of Boston. As we move to the Hynes Convention Center, MGB’s Assembly Hall, and beyond, into the spring and summer months, it seems fitting that Boston’s own baseball “cathedral” – Fenway Park – has moved this community forward with these sounds of healing and hope.

Ron Hirschberg is a physiatrist. Lisa Wong is a pediatrician. They are co-founders, Boston Hope Music.

Image credit: Kathy May Tran

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