Music brings a smile to local patients



There are no clanking bottles, no drunken requests, no dancing and only the slightest hint of a hoot or holler.

It's not the typical country crowd on this Wednesday night, but if Dallas Marks and Bill Miller aren't going full throttle, they're not far off.

The duo is mixing Jason Aldean and Garth Brooks hits with rock covers ranging from Van Morrison to AC/DC, including a version of the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin' " that veers joyfully off track into Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It."

Music Smiles brings together musicians and patients

The Music Smiles program brings musicians to patients, their famiies and staff at area hospitals. Musicians Dallas Marks and Bill Miller play for patients at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 4/22/2014)

Feet and hands tap slightly, faces light up and some wheelchairs actually rock back and forth on the seventh floor of the physical rehab unit at UPMC Mercy, the Bluff. The singer and guitarist are seated next to the nurses station, with exercise machines as the backdrop, playing to a couple of dozen patients in recovery for strokes and traumatic brain and spine injuries.

The moment is courtesy of the Music Smiles program of Sonny Pugar Memorial Inc., a nonprofit founded by Annie Pugar in 2006, two years after she lost her husband, drummer Sonny, to cancer.

This is not music therapy in the clinical sense, as that it is not usually serviced by club performers doing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

"We're not music therapists," Ms. Pugar says. "We don't pretend to be that."

But there's no question it's therapeutic. Some of the patients, ranging in age from 20s to 80s, just stare or pick at their plates of fruit. Some are more animated. There's a young blond woman with a face tattoo making quiet requests for modern country tunes.

And there's 55-year-old Matthew Merichko of Munhall, who's literally bouncing his chair. He's a former crane operator for U.S. Steel who has muscular dystrophy and was in the unit recently for a rehab stint related to a fall in his home in 2009 that injured his spine. He doesn't go to concerts anymore but smiles broadly thinking about seeing Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones back in the day.

"This keeps me moving, makes me feel good," he says of the Music Smiles visit. "It's better than sitting here, depressed."

No one seems to be enjoying it more than singer Mr. Marks, who makes no speeches or even mentions hospitals or injuries or why anyone's there. But he's all heart and soul. In the evening's most tender moment, he rolls his chair up to a patient and puts his arm around her, serenading her with the Kenny Rogers ballad "Lady."

"There's nothing more rewarding," Mr. Marks says of playing to this crowd. "You can go out and play to tens of thousands of people and think you can come out on some huge adrenalin rush high, but there is nothing like doing this. The thing that hits home for me is, my grandmother, she watched me play for years, when she passed away, she was actually in this hospital."

"Normally when you play, the lights are in your face and you really can't see the people that much," says guitar ace Mr. Miller. "This is so intimate."

The duo is among about 100 regional musicians who participate in Music Smiles. Sean McDowell of radio station WDVE-FM is the president, and the board includes such well-known players as Joey Granati, Shari Richards, Bob Banerjee and Joel Lindsey.

The hospital visits began in 2010 with jazz pianist Scott Anderson playing at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, then Mercy got on board and in the past year the program has grown to six hospitals in Allegheny County and one in Washington, with a total of five or six performances per month. The organization, which pays the musicians, is funded through benefit concerts, corporate sponsorship and the United Way to the tune of about $15,000 per year.

"Musicians in hospitals isn't new, but what is new is the scale we envision for this," Ms. Pugar says. "We are hoping that the hospitals can put this in their budgets, and we hope to supplement that with our own money from corporations and grants."

Ms. Pugar, who teaches English composition at ITT Tech, says it's a mutually beneficial program, with no trouble getting musicians to sign on.

"We want to establish hospitals as venues for musicians," she says. "Because of my late husband, Sonny, I happened to know a lot of musicians. We noticed that venues were becoming sparse for musicians, and we knew there needed to be some remedy, and this just fell into our laps."

Music Smiles matches the musician to the needs of the hospital, ranging from lobby piano concerts at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC to hip-hop artists Kay Bey (Da Button Pusha) and Joy Brown (Joya Sequoia) in the teen lounge at Children's, where music therapist Nicole Steele says the teens can be "a little harder to reach."

In the Mercy rehab unit, the staff is looking for something that rocks a little.

"They like music that creates an energy so that the patients move and respond with more effect," Ms. Pugar says. "At Mercy, we've seen people come into the patient area with sporadic movements and leave with rhythmical ones. We've seen people who haven't shown any affect on the faces, never smiled, leave with a smile."

Patty Neumeyer, director of psychiatric, clinical and support services at UPMC Mercy, noted in a statement, "Patients require a tremendous amount of affirmation and support as they grapple with stabilization of their bodily functions, mood, medication and so on. Often, the value is easily seen from expression on their faces that changes from sadness or stress to smiles and hope."

"We like to get them out and about," says Lisa Pinigis, a general rehabilitation clinician at Mercy. "It helps with social interaction. A lot of the times they make friends with each other. It seems to make everyone perk up, especially when they've been there for a long time. They get to feel like they're going to a concert."

Ms. Steele says that the musicians bring the performance aspect to the patients. "A lot of what we do is working one on one, doing more therapeutic things or procedural support and distraction. What they are doing is providing the opportunity for our parents and patients to enjoy a concert setting, which they may not have a chance to do."

It's particularly poignant at Children's, says Mr. Lindsey, the British-born singer-songwriter who fronts the group Boulevard of the Allies. When he plays in the hospital auditorium, he says, he can look up through the glass and see people watching from several stories of wards.

"On one such occasion," he says, "a young boy had watched the performance with his family from the second story, holding himself up by the railing with his face close to the glass. The youngster had no hair from chemotherapy treatment and was frail and thin. At the end of the performance he came down to the auditorium, and a nurse asked if the boy could speak to me."

They chatted for about five minutes about how they both loved the Beatles and how the boy had an electric guitar at home. Mr. Lindsey noticed that his mom was in tears.

"Leaving the boy with his dad for a moment, the mom told me that her son had barely spoken to anyone in over a week and had lost motivation to leave his bed prior to the musical experience.

"The poorly attended gig I played in a dive bar the night before," he says, "suddenly felt extremely insignificant."


Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.

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