Last month, as islander Cynthia Golfus played soft harp music at the bedside of an elderly woman dying of cancer, the woman reached out her hand. Though the bright-eyed harp player had never done it before, she improvised on her small, Celtic harp with one hand so she could hold the woman’s hand in the other.
“Her eyes started to roll back a little bit, and I thought, ‘Maybe she’s going to leave us now,’” Golfus recalled. “I kept playing, and I realized she was falling asleep. It was one of those perfect moments where it felt like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing.”
As natural as Golfus feels playing harp for hospice patients in their final weeks or days, she says she only recently discovered a desire to be a therapeutic harp player and has taken quite a journey to realize that goal.
In 2007, Golfus, an energetic and friendly nutritionist with long, silver hair, was excited to move from California to Vashon by herself and to start a new job working with outpatients at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.
She found a home on the island, planned out how she would ride the passenger-only ferry to Seattle each day and was about to sign the final paperwork for the position when she got bad news. Her registered dietician license had lapsed, meaning she couldn’t be hired for the job. It turned out that in the hustle and bustle of her move to Vashon and some recent traveling, she had missed the mailed notice to renew her registration with the American Dietetic Association.
Golfus wrote two letters to appeal the expiration of her license, but for reasons she says still doesn’t understand, both appeals were denied.
“It was like the death of my career, myself and my livelihood as well,” she said.
In a quandary about how to move forward, Golfus had ordered a study book to prepare to retake the dietician exam and get her license back when she got the results from an astrology chart reading — something she said had never done but decided to try. The astrologist she worked with suggested she try to combine what appeared to be her strongest qualities — her nurturing nature and artistic ability— into a career.
Golfus, an amateur harp player, was reminded of a moment years ago, while living in California, when she heard a story on NPR about a harpist who played for terminally ill patients. At the time she had recently begun harp lessons, and the idea piqued her interest.
“I thought, ‘Wow. What a gift to provide that comfort care and try to relieve the suffering of someone as well as help their family,’” she said.
Golfus discarded the nutrition study book, and after a long path that included more harp lessons, studying at a specialized school in San Diego and completing a residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital, she received her certification from the International Harp Therapy Program in 2011.
Now, Golfus, who is 61, plays weekly for terminally ill patients in Seattle through Group Health’s hospice program and occasionally sees Vashon residents who hear of her work. She’s worked with terminally ill children, patients close to death who barely respond to her music, as well as more engaged people, even those who go on to recover from their illness.
Sitting last week in her tidy home perched above Quartermaster Harbor, Golfus described how the soft and calming music often provides some peace to family members as well. One time when she played for a dying woman and her two adult sons, one of the son’s cried openly for the first time since his mother fell ill.
A large part of her harp therapy is “to try to relieve (the family’s) suffering by helping relieve the person who’s leaving’s suffering,” she said.
One of her most powerful experiences came when she was asked to play in a hospital room at Seattle Children’s as a baby died. The mother, she said, was so emotional that she couldn’t bear to be in the room. The grandmother held the baby, softly telling the child it was OK to go.
“I just kept playing and it died,” she said.
Music therapy, Golfus said, has an effect that simply playing recorded music could never produce. The sound of live strings is warmer and more intimate than a recording, and Golfus has been trained to match her playing to each person’s wants and needs, often improvising instead of playing familiar tunes and taking cues from patients’ breathing patterns.
“You can really modify it or tailor it to that person’s situation, whether it’s their breathing or they’re feeling anxious. You can play in such a way that a CD wouldn’t recognize or be able to relate to.”
Golfus has yet to be paid for her music therapy, which she does on a volunteer basis while nannying on Vashon to pay her bills. But she says Group Health is happy with her work, and her supervisor said the agency is working on creating a paid position for her as a music therapist, something it’s never had before.
“Even early on with Group Health, they recognized the value to their patients,” she said.
Golfus is quick to note that music therapy for the ill — including that with the harp — is a proven practice that dates back to ancient times. Today, music therapy is taught at colleges and universities around the world, and studies have found that regular music therapy sessions have positive effects om terminally ill patients, making them more relaxed and comfortable, decreasing anxiety and even easing pain.
“Mostly it’s allowing them to relax and let go, is the simplest way to put it,” Golfus said.
As for Golfus, she’s looking forward to being paid to do what she loves and she’s also working to put the word out on Vashon. She recently began an effort to network with island health providers and is making fliers and business cards, all in hopes of expanding her business.
Looking back, Golfus says that although she chose a path with less financial stability than her career as a nutritionist, she couldn’t be happier. After working with so many terminally ill patients, she says she’s noticed that those who have lived fulfilling or profound lives seem to be most relaxed in their final days.
“Ultimately we don’t get out alive,” she said, “and how we live is how we die.”