We interviewed Mary Ellen Heelan, MT-BC, NMT, a native of Downers Grove and now a resident of Cary who began her career as a Social Studies teacher in Oklahoma and Virginia before moving into healthcare. She has worked across the entire continuum from hospital acute care and skilled nursing to senior housing, hospice, and home health. Mary Ellen is a board-certified and Neurologic Music Therapist whose private practice, Heelan Music, specializes in providing services to hospice patients and their families, geriatric clients, and those with rehabilitation and psychiatric needs. The power of music is that it is universal —music is a part of everyone’s life. In Mary Ellen’s case, she has been playing musical instruments since she was five. She sings, plays the piano, accordion, and hammered dulcimer as well as a variety of other instruments. Mary Ellen has a B.A. in History from Saint Xavier University – Chicago, a Bachelor’s in Music from DePaul, and an MBA from Northwestern.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO WORK FOR HOSPICE ?
“My creative, energetic, social activist Mom was taken from us so quickly. She was diagnosed with cancer the day after Thanksgiving almost twenty years ago and was gone by the first week of January. Hospice was such a comfort to us then but at the time, despite all my years in healthcare, I knew very little. I wished afterwards that we had had hospice earlier to help us through the shock and to work with us especially when my Mom was still at home by herself. Fast forward to years after, I felt so blessed when I had an opportunity to work in hospice care and I have learned so much. At the end of the day, I hope that through music, I have helped to make a difference.”
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT WORKING IN HOSPICE?
“We often hear that the whole family is the patient in hospice care. Music stays with us as long as our hearts keep beating. The rhythm is there and music gives families a chance to keep connecting with their loved one. “What was his/her favorite song?,” I’ll ask. If it’s a couple, I’ll ask if there was a special song that the two of them shared. Helping families through anticipatory grief through music and guiding them as they think about music for a memorial service later is a blessing and a privilege. I have a special soft spot in my heart for patients with dementia who are also under hospice care. Research shows that music can access long-forgotten memories and open a window, however briefly, to let them have those final special moments together. Music helps patients work through the wide range of feelings they experience at end of life and bring them a sense of peace.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY ABOUT WORKING WITH TRANSITIONS?
“The truly caring Transitions staff are wonderful about identifying those patients who could really benefit from Music Therapy. Here are two very brief stories to share: Staff mentioned that one patient had been a pianist. I met with her and as she sat in front of my keyboard, I asked what she would like to play. She chose We Shall Overcome. The very next time I saw her, she had just lost her husband. The feelings were overwhelming for her but we shared We Shall Overcome once again and she was assured that all of us at Transitions would continue to help her overcome any challenges that come her way. I had several sessions with another patient as she approached her final days. She frequently shared experiences she had had throughout her life and we played songs that related to those times. Though musical talent is by no means necessary for a patient to be considered appropriate for music therapy, it happened that this lady had been a singer. She was on oxygen and believed she could no longer sing but when the music began, she found to her astonishment that not only was she able to sing, but that she could still sing in a soprano register. During my last session with her, her granddaughter was present as well and we sang her favorite song, Memories. I feel so privileged to be a part of the team that helps make patients’ final memories comforting and peaceful ones.”