Harpist strikes positive chord with patients at Longwood hospital

By Gary Taylor
Orlando Sentinel Posted July 12 2004

LONGWOOD As Verlon Eason makes her rounds at South Seminole Hospital in Longwood, she greets each patient with a smile. She is there to help speed their recoveries or, perhaps, to make them comfortable in their final days.

Eason, 54, has a long list of patients to visit, and she is convinced she has the right prescription for each one of them. But Eason isn't a doctor or a nurse. Instead of a stethoscope, she carries a harp. Her universal prescription is music.

"Patients just love it," said Eason of Winter Springs. "People will cry when I play," she said.

The stress level in a hospital is high, and it affects patients and their loved ones as well as workers, she said.

You can almost see that stress draining as the music plays, she said. "They just have a whole new sense of wellness."

Eason has been visiting hospitals with her small lap harp, which she affectionately calls Gracie, for almost two years.

Besides South Seminole Hospital, she plays at Orlando Regional Medical Center and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in downtown Orlando.

"She's great," said Julie Adragna, a nurse in South Seminole's intensive care unit. "She helps them [patients] relax. You can tell that it helps. Their blood pressure and heart rates drop."

Patients aren't the only ones who benefit from the music, Adragna said. Family members and even hospital workers find it calming. "She entertains us, too, and helps us relax."

Jean Morris of Sanford wasn't sure she needed any music when Eason walked into her room. Fractures from a fall had left her in pain, and she didn't see how a harpist could help.

As she listened to song after song, she was soon smiling.

Eason played such tunes as Psalm 139, Danny Boy, Love Me Tender and Greensleeves, but it was Amazing Grace that really had Morris beaming. Morris said the song was her mother's favorite.

"This was very nice," she said. "It was very comforting."

Sometimes, Eason just pulls up a chair in a hallway and starts playing.

Workers smile and greet her, children giggle, and curious visitors ask questions. Eason can carry on a conversation and not miss a note.

As a large family walks toward an exit, Eason begins playing Largo.

"It's another name for Going Home," she explained. "I play it when people are leaving the hospital a nd also when they are dying, because they are going home."

Music has been part of Eason's life for 50 years. "I sang on a stage when I was 4 years old," she said, and she was taking piano lessons by age 7.

Eason has been teaching piano for 25 years and is the pianist for First Baptist Church of Winter Springs. She has played the harp for about 10 years.

Her first one, a midsized folk harp, was a gift from her father. He had it made for her when her family was reeling from the deaths of Eason's father-in-law and mother in the same week. Soon, she was taking harp lessons.

The harp, she said, can't be compared with any other instrument. "It's not an easy instrument to learn."

"They become a part of your life," Eason said, explaining harpists often give their instruments names.

She decided if she bought a full-size harp, she would name it Grace, as in the grace of God. When she found a used one for sale by a private owner, she knew it was meant for her because the owner had already named it Grace.

She first spotted what would be her smallest harp while touring a harp factory in Chicago. She bought it in early 2002 and named it Gracie after her large harp. By October, Eason had the job playing in hospitals.

The lap harp's 23 strings, half the number of a large harp, limit the range of music that can be played, but Eason has dozens of tunes memorized.

Now, Eason is taking her music to a higher level.

She is studying to become a certified music practitioner through the nonprofit Music for Healing and Transition Program Inc. of Hillsdale, N.Y.

She isn't sure where the certification will take her. Although it would allow her to open her own practice, more importantly, she said, it will help her in what she is already doing.

She is learning the proper music to play in various medical situations and learning to watch patients' medical monitoring equipment to see how they are reacting to the music.

Eason traveled to Tampa for a series of classes and last week began an internship at Florida Hospital Orlando.

Eason is part of Orlando Regional Healthcare System's Healing Arts program, which involves a variety of performers, from musicians to clowns. She is paid to play at the three hospitals she visits weekly.

Those visits, however, have become such a part of Eason's life, she said, that the money is secondary. In fact, once she completes her internship, she also plans to volunteer at Florida Hospital.

She volunteers for Hospice of the Comforter as well. "The 11th hour -- someone's final hour -- is a real sacred time," she said.

"Music can have a profound influence on the healing of people's lives," Eason said. The role she is able to play "is just something that gives me meaning in my life."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel