When George Moran woke up last Tuesday, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.
It was not such an outlandish idea. Moran, 39, a music teacher in Long Valley, New Jersey, had had a cardiac valve repaired that morning at Morristown Memorial Hospital. During the surgery, his heart had to be stopped for 90 minutes, and he was placed on a heart-lung machine.
Soon after, he recalled, there was an attractive woman walking around, playing a small harp. Luckily, these celestial aspects of the recovery room did not send Moran into palpitations. Instead, researchers suspect, the gentle arpeggios of the harpist might have helped regulate his heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, aiding his recovery.
Two hours a day, Alix Weisz, a harpist from Chester, New Jersey, strolls through the hospital's Cardiac Post-Anesthesia Care Unit to test that premise.
The recovery room staff monitors changes in patients' vital signs every 15 minutes while she plays, and for an hour before and after. Results will be collected as part of a four-week study, one of several around the country trying to measure the health benefits of music in hospitals.
One research project by a doctor at the Carle Heart Center in Urbana, Illinois, has suggested that harp music in particular helped stabilize irregular heartbeats. With the Morristown study, which is financed by a local trust and still under way, evidence that music helps patients heal there is still anecdotal. But many patients and nurses say they have looked forward to Weisz's visits.
"When I was coming out of it, I was filled with tubes -- a throat tube, an oxygen tube -- and it was very hard to breathe," Moran said. "You feel you're going to gag. The music calmed my body and allowed me to stop thinking about what was going on. It allowed me to feel more relaxed and rested."
Weisz has her own guidelines for playing her instrument of peace.
"I try not to play anything recognizable, because there might be an unwanted emotional response, like if I played music a guy broke up with his girlfriend in Atlantic City to," she said.
She relies on chants, lullabies and Celtic airs and ancient standards from books like The Healer's Way: Soothing Music for Those in Pain. She plays quietly and slowly, and she says she tries not to glance over at the monitors above the beds, to see if any pulse rates are decreasing.
While many of the patients in the recovery room are still anesthetized and unresponsive, she said Moran had given her the thumbs up while she played.