Morning Treatment

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By the time we arrive for the Monday morning performance, St. Louis Symphony violinist Hiroko Yoshida has already made her way to the Infusion Room to warm up. Yoshida has performed in the Saint Louis University Cancer Center so often that she feels at home there, both with the patients and the staff. Fellow violinist Silvian Iticovici joins her in the informal space adjacent to the Infusion Room. They take another look at their music, close the door and practice together for a short while.

The Infusion Room consists of a number of large, plush lounge chairs with IV stands and monitors nearby. Patients, some alone, some with companions, sit in the chairs and wait. This is where they come for their cancer treatment. I watch a nurse settle beside a patient and carefully hook the IV to his arm. They chat casually together. “It’s fascinating to watch a good nurse at work,” Crystal Weaver says to me.

Silvian Iticovici & Hiroko Yoshida perform in the Infusion Room at the SLU Cancer Center.
Silvian Iticovici & Hiroko Yoshida perform in the Infusion Room at the SLU Cancer Center.

Weaver is a music therapist at SLU Cancer Center. She and the Cancer Center have partnered with the St. Louis Symphony and its SymphonyCares program, under the direction of Maureen Byrne, for five years now. It’s been a very close partnership, and Weaver and her colleague Andrew Dwiggins have gotten to know many of the Symphony musicians, their needs and idiosyncracies, their care and commitment. They knew Yoshida would be early and Dwiggins was prepared with chairs and music stands. Over the years, with Weaver giving an orientation for musicians each fall, the Cancer Center concerts have become one of the most popular community programs among STL Symphony musicians.

Dwiggins gives a brief introduction, telling the patients that he hopes the music will make the time pass more easily. One woman gives a thumb’s up as soon as Iticovici and Yoshida begin to play. Some people settle back a little more deeply into their chairs. One woman sits forward in her seat, leaning toward the music to take it all in.

During the duets–Gluck, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Corelli–the work of the hospital never stops. Nurses welcome patients and prepare their IVs. When one patient is done, he mutters “I’d like to hear that more often,” as he heads out the door. Faces that had appeared to be troubled, perplexed, anxious–in a few minutes become relaxed and settle into calm and smiles.

Iticovici and Yoshida end with a familiar lullaby. And then just one more piece. “An encore,” Iticovici grins.


Kangaroo Juice

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Barbara Fletcher sits in her hospital room chair with blood flowing into her body through a tube. “My kangaroo juice,” she calls it, because whenever she receives new blood she feels new energy. A short concert has just concluded outside her room, performed by Symphony violinist Silvian Iticovici and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly. Fletcher describes the images that passed through her mind as Iticovici and Lilly played works by Satie and others. Fletcher tells me about warm breezes, trees, a refreshing pond with fish rising briefly to the surface. The music took her far outside the hospital room, far from the tubes and monitors.

Allegra Lilly tunes at SLU Cancer Center's Blood & Marrow Outpatient Transplant facility.
Allegra Lilly tunes at SLU Cancer Center’s Blood & Marrow Outpatient Transplant facility.

Fletcher visits the Blood & Marrow Outpatient Transplant services at Saint Louis University Cancer Center regularly with her husband and daughter. Her daughter was her marrow donor. Nobody likes to come for cancer treatment, but when Symphony musicians are scheduled to perform it becomes a day to look forward to. SymphonyCares and the SLU Cancer Center have been partnering since 2011. Maureen Byrne, Symphony Director of Community Programs, never has a hard time finding musicians to participate.

Silvian Iticovici warms up.
Silvian Iticovici warms up.

On a drizzly Monday morning, Lilly and Iticovici set up in front of a nurses’ station. The doors to the patients’ rooms up and down the corridor are open. Without introduction, the music begins.


A doctor dons a mask before entering a patient's room. Video intern Nicola Muscroft documents the concert.
A doctor dons a mask before entering a patient’s room. Video intern Nicola Muscroft documents the concert.

Music therapists Crystal Weaver and Andrew Dwiggins are on hand for whatever may be needed. Weaver tells me that it’s not expected for the Symphony musicians to be therapists, but she and Dwiggins have the training to come to a patient’s or a family member’s aid when the music pulls the emotions intensely. Dwiggins says it’s never a matter of being alarmed that someone may cry, but to make sure that the patient or loved one feels safe to cry, to acknowledge what the music has released.

Allegra Lilly and Silivian Iticovici meet with Barbara Fletcher and her family.
Allegra Lilly and Silvian Iticovici meet with Barbara Fletcher and her family.

After the concert Lilly and Iticovici meet with Barbara, her husband and daughter, wearing protective gowns, gloves and masks. Lilly tells me afterward that the SLU Cancer Center concerts remind her of why she makes music. Iticovici agrees, “It’s about being able to touch someone.”