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California Choir Gives Comfort Music to the Ailing

Music has always been a part of human transitions we sing songs at birthday parties, at graduations, at weddings. And music is a part of life's sadder moments, too. In some cultures, people sing songs to heal the sick and soothe the dying. But in the United States, most people die in a nursing home or a hospital bed surrounded by a cacophony of machines rather than the sound of music. From California's San Francisco Bay area, Sarah Varney looks at how a local choir is bringing its own form of medicine to the sick and dying in hospitals and living rooms.

"What are you afraid of? What do you desire? Life is brief beyond belief."

Ross is 26 and on June 3 of last year he was riding his bicycle in a bicycle lane and was hit by a car that was going 50 miles an hour and was thrown 150 feet and suffered terrible injuries.

Ross Dillon is in a coma. Doctors say the neural circuitry in his brain is damaged, and they aren't sure how much he can comprehend. But his mother Betsy is certain that music will beckon her son back to this world. "I know Ross hears it," she says. "His eyes become wide open and he has that look of listening."

Kate Munger and Sharon Loyd carry their songbooks through the lobby of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California. They're part of a women's chorus called Threshold Choir, which has eight choral groups all around the area. The ensembles sing to people who are gravely ill or dying. Today, Kate and Sharon are singing for Ross.

"We sing to life songs," says Kate. "He's in a high coma. His eyes are open, he gives extraordinary eye contact. When you say hi, he blinks. It's a little disconcerting sometimes. I keep wanting him to stretch and say, 'oh, that was a nice nap.'"

The women get out of the elevator and walk to Ross' room. Betsy sits in vigil at her son's bedside.

"Hi, Ross. Wake up. It's Kate."

Ross Dillon is young and lithe and strong, an athlete's build. A plastic tube attached to his throat carries oxygen into his lungs. He's surrounded by machines that whirl, spin, compress and circulate. The entire hospital room buzzes with electricity and in the middle of the swirling energy lies Ross, placid and vacant. Kate and Sharon stand by Ross' bed, open their songbooks and begin to sing.

As the women's voices strengthen, their music overtakes the undulations of the hissing respirator.

Humans sense much of the world through their ears. The outer ear gathers sound waves, which are converted into bio-electrical impulses at the eardrum, and then travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. But since sound waves are simply changes in air pressure, many music therapists say that sound resonates through the entire human body.

They point out that when an airplane passes low overhead, you can actually feel sound waves passing through your chest. Researchers have been studying these effects for decades, and they've found that sound can boost the immune system, reduce pain and ease childhood asthma.

Ron Borsczon has seen it happen. The California State Music Professor and director of a music therapy clinic says songs have a physiological effect on diseased bodies. "The body itself, like the universe, vibrates. And therefore, if part of the body is ailing and the vibration of that part of the body is not in synch with the rest of the body, music can retrain the body, can help the body come out of that," he says.

Professor Borsczon says when people sing for a coma patient, like Ross Dillon, the vibrations flow through the bodies of the singers and the patient at the same moment, uniting their bodies on the same wave of sound.

Betsy Dillon believes singing has a physiological and emotional effect on her comatose son. But she says the music and the choir's company also comfort her and her family as the months pass.

At Ross' bedside, Kate Munger asks Betsy to sing along with her. As their voices rise, Betsy begins to cry. She says she loves these moments, with Kate and Sharon next to her and the room filled with music. "I feel like I'm not alone. The words of the songs comfort me and they speak to those places that hurt and this is a very painful process," she says.

Betsy Dillon says the wiring in her son's brain got scrambled when the car plowed into him. She doesn't know if he understands anything about what's going on in this room. But she swears his face changes when the choir sings, and that comforts her.