She was struggling to tell me something but her words wouldn’t come. All she could do was mumble and that only with great frustration. I was holding her hand, trying as best I could to comfort her in her agitation.
“Could you come to the hospital as soon as possible?” Her son had called me in the early morning hour, his voice quivering. His elderly mom was not doing well: She had apparently suffered another stroke. “The last thing she told me was that she had to see her doctor. That’s how she refers to you, ‘her doctor,’ and so I called you.”
I smiled because I had heard her call me that before. I’m not a “real” doctor, a physician, that is. But I was “her doctor,” at that moment, standing at her bedside, offering the only remedy I could: prayer.
As I prayed aloud, she calmed down. Then she closed her eyes and grew very still. I watched to make sure she was breathing. And suddenly she opened her eyes wide, like she was surprised she was still there, and then she looked to the left and right without moving her head.
And the light in her eyes and the glow of her smile was angelic. Then, this one who moments ago couldn’t utter a single word, began singing, “Amazing Grace.” At first I was startled but didn’t hesitate to join her. And the two of us, both flat and off-key, sounding like two tone-deaf crooners, sang through not one but two stanzas of John Newton’s 1779 hymn.
I imagined the nurses glancing at each other with raised eyebrows: “What’s that preacher doing in there?”
But I pressed on, coaxing her to sing more: “Let’s sing another. How about Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so?” Smiling, she joined me, and on we went as I continued holding her hand.
“Amazing Grace,” and “Jesus Loves Me,” must be encoded in her long-term memory. When the words of the present were locked inside her, the words of the old hymns flowed freely.
A few months ago, National Public Radio did a segment, “Singing Therapy Helps Stroke Victims Sing Again.” The story focused on a 16-year-old girl who was the victim of a devastating stroke at age 11. Through “melodic intonation therapy,” or singing therapy, her speech had returned, and she was back in school. “I’m singing in my head and talking out loud without singing. I do it, like, really quick,” she said.
The therapy helps train the undamaged right side of the brain, which controls singing, to speak. It’s the damaged left side of the brain which controls speaking. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has utilized a form of singing therapy to help her speak again. In the case of the 16-year-old stroke victim, the nerve fibers on the right side, the singing center of her brain, had actually grown after only four months of singing therapy. Although she still struggles to find the words, she is far ahead of where she was after a full year of conventional therapy.
“Basically, the hardware of the system really changed to support this increased vocal output,” says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, who heads the study on melodic intonation therapy at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dr. Schlaug cites patients in their 80s who have shown brain adaptations after the therapy. It just takes longer for them, just as it does to learn a foreign language the older one is. And he has also seen good results with autistic children and people with Parkinson’s disease who have difficulty speaking.
“If you can sing it, you’ll eventually say it,” I encouraged my friend in ICU. She smiled.
I assured her: “We’ve had a good worship service: We’ve prayed, and we’ve sung hymns, and we were preaching when we were singing. God has to be pleased with you. So get some rest.”
And she did.
And in due time, she may be able to speak again, by God’s amazing grace.
Contact David B. Whitlock at email@example.com or visit his website, www.davidbwhitlock.com