Patients pick surgical soundtrack

Patients calmed during surgery by the music of their choice
Registered nurse Stephanie Wolgast talks to Marilyn Holmberg about her preference of music Thursday at Providence Medford Medical Center. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

When 86-year-old Marilyn Holmberg went in for surgery recently, the team at Providence Medford Medical Center wanted to give her a sense of control as well as comfort, so they asked her what music she wanted to hear.

Old country music, preferably anything by Ray Price, she responded.

It's not a question you expect busy surgeons and nurses to ask, but they make sure patients get what they want — and they hope it brings a smile at this tense moment.

"Lots of studies link music to healing," says nurse Donna Rudy, director of the Providence surgical area. "It's obviously a stressful time for patients. With music, they feel more of a sense of control as they go to sleep."

Patients pick from a wide range of music, and it's not necessarily what you think of as soothing. It tends to be what they love, even if it's heavy metal, she says.

"It goes back to Greek philosophers," Rudy says, "and they knew both the body and the soul are healed by music."

With playlists from iPods, smartphones, Pandora and other platforms, the surgeon gets to choose the music after the patient is under, she adds.

"It helps relax the whole team," she says.

For his procedure on blood clots in his legs, Anthony Perez of Agness says he was nervous and asked nurses to switch it from blues to country.

"They found Johnny Cash, and I felt a lot better," Perez says. "In a second operation, I said I didn't care what they had on, so they suggested surf music, with the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. It was great."

Surgeon Aaron Partsafas observes that music "has a calming effect on everyone in the operating room. It's often a situation of high stress, with lots of background noise. It's not playing every time, but if the surgery is extensive and long, there will definitely be music playing."

Pandora lets you pick one song, then it plays other tunes from that genre, so it's easier, he says.

"I find the Beach Boys most calming. I like reggae when I'm preparing an aorta," says Partsafas. "There's a certain pleasant familiarity to surf and reggae music.

"If it's early morning, I like Nickelback (a Canadian rock group). They're up tempo. I like everything. You play what's commensurate with the procedure."

After the patient is under, surgical team members vote on what they want to hear, he says. Does the surgeon get more than one vote?

"Essentially, yes, but the music has to be agreeable to everyone in the room," he says. "But the operating surgeon gets about three votes."

At Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, most patients go along with the surgeon's choice of music, says Kristi Blackhurst, perioperative and trauma director, but the hospital honors any patient request first.

During brain surgery, when patients are conscious, the team tries to create a calm environment so that the surgeon can talk to the patient and ask questions.

Music is turned off at crucial junctures, such as when administering anesthesia, during closing counts (making sure all tools are accounted for and not left in the body), and the "surgical time-out," a sort of pre-flight, Blackhurst notes, when team members check that they have the right patient, are on the right side of the body and are doing the right procedure.

"We try to create a comfortable working environment that balances listening pleasure with the safety of the surgical procedure," she says.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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