Portrait of a Healing Muse: Eileen Hadidian

Almost 15 years ago, I interviewed a remarkable San Francisco Bay Area musician, whose personal story was as exceptional as the work she’d created. At the time, Eileen Hadidian, a professional musician, was struggling with metastatic cancer. But she was using her personal journey through cancer care to bring an experience of depth and delight to others.

Eileen Hadidian, Healing Muse (1948–2012).

Imagine my surprise when several years later I logged onto Facebook and saw a prompt to include Hadidian as a suggested “friend.” Incredibly enough, she was still alive — and lived for several more years afterward. I often wondered whether her depth and giving nature were at least in part responsible for her life continuing well beyond what might have been predicted. Sadly, I recently learned that she ultimately passed away in 2012.

Along with dear friends and family, she left behind a tremendous legacy of recognizing the healing gift of music and providing it to others. The organization she and Cox founded has also matured in the meantime, producing additional music and deepening its orientation to music as medicine.

On the anniversary of her death last year, Healing Muses honored Hadidian on their Facebook page, writing:

“Today on the anniversary of her death, we recall Eileen Hadidian with affection and admiration. The founder of Healing Muses, Eileen’s never-hesitating commitment to improve care for all patients transformed the process for many cancer patients in the Bay area.
We continue to strive to those high ideals she set to bring healing to all in need by the simple but elegant means of music.”

In tribute to Eileen Hadidian and her life, I’m republishing the original story about her. There are also links to her obituary, and a story from New American Media about Hadidian in hospice treatment, and the financial burden that end-of-life care can represent.

Copyright © 2002 by Lily G. Casura. All rights reserved.

San Francisco Bay Area musician Eileen Hadidian is one of a growing number of professional musicians across North America who have recently become interested in bringing what they call “healing music” into a health care setting.

In her professional life, Hadidian, a Stanford graduate, plays the recorder, the flute, and some harp. She started a chamber music program in the Bay Area called “Hausmusik” which bring offers early music to devoted listeners in annual concerts. With harpist Natalie Cox, she’s formed a group called “Healing Muses” which plays in hospital and hospice settings in the area, and has received several grants from prominent organizations for their work. (While “Healing Muses” believes live performance is best, they also have a CD for sale for those who can’t get to one of their performances.) Hadidian even teaches music lessons to local students.

(Update: A YouTube channel curates a dozen or more selections of their music.)

But while Hadidian’s professional life seems satisfyingly full, it’s her personal life that’s most remarkable. After a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1994, and a recurrence in 1997, Hadidian is a healer who herself is battling metastatic cancer.

In Greek mythology, nine muses — all women — presided over different sciences and arts. In general, the word “muse,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, has come to mean “a source of inspiration,” or a “guiding spirit.”

In the case of the Bay Area’s “Healing Muses” duo, Eileen Hadidian and Natalie Cox, the source of inspiration was Eileen’s own experience as a patient. (Maureen Brennan, another harpist, has recently joined the group.) In December of 1999, they started a pilot project with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California, where she was undergoing treatment, to bring live music into the hospital setting, for patients and staff.

Once a month, the duo takes their music into Kaiser, rotating through the different hospital floors for the first hour, and then, during the second hour of their playing, the lunch hour, they play in the lobby, where patients and their families are waiting for surgery. The response has been quite positive, and “Healing Muses” recently received two grants, one from the East Bay Community Foundation, and the other from the Institute of Noetic Sciences, to expand their program.

They’ve also added other hospitals to their list, including the Alta Bates Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Berkeley, California; and more recently, the UCSF/Mt. Zion Comprehensive Cancer Center, in San Francisco. Last fall, “Healing Muses” played in the “Meditation Garden Music Series” at UCSF/Mt. Zion, but also in their chemotherapy infusion center, and in the lobby.

The Healing Muses’ CD, “Dolce Musica: A Contemplative Journey,” is available from Amazon and other retailers. Recently it has also been selected for inclusion in a novel product, “Cancer Gift Baskets,” which are handmade for cancer patients and their caregivers.

(Update: In addition to “Dolce Musica: A Contemplative Journey,” the original CD which was released in 2000, two other CDS were released in 2011: “Garden of Healing: Soothing Heart and Spirit” and “Reflections: Music to Soothe and Uplift the Spirit.” The three CDs are available from the Healing Muses website, along with a playbook of sheet music entitled “Heart’s Ease: Music to Uplift the Spirit and Chase Away Pain, Discomfort and Stress;” the CDs are also available from Magnatunes, which published a lovely tribute to Hadidian’s work here.)

Hadidian and Cox have been playing together in concert for five years or so; but the focus on the healing work has been over the last three. The impetus for the healing work was Hadidian’s own experience with breast cancer. When she was first diagnosed in 1994, she says, she was in the 95th percentile for surviving, and she “really began to explore how I could use music for my own healing.” That included bringing a boom box and music tapes into the operating room, and later, “exploring what I could to do shift my music practice to more healing work.”

The opportunity came when a dear friend, Susan, was dying of breast cancer. Hadidian would go over to her house every Sunday afternoon and play her small Celtic harp for her, and watch the remarkable changes in Susan’s demeanor and aspect. “I watched her transformation from an agitated person who was dying yet surrounded by chaos — because her caretakers were always buzzing around, talking incessantly — to going to a place of incredible peace and falling into a very, very deep sleep,” says Hadidian. “Her caretakers would pop their heads into the room from time to time and they were amazed by the change in her, because they would tell me, ‘this is the most peaceful she’s been’.”

Hadidian continued visiting Susan with her harp as Susan continued to “get weaker and weaker, and turn in more and more.” She played for her last the Sunday before she died, by which time Susan had lapsed into a coma, but she was still very agitated. And the harp music continued to help. Says Hadidian now, “I really felt that Susan’s death provided an opportunity for this work to come into fruition, and it felt very sacred.” After the profound experience of easing her friend’s pain through music, Hadidian realized she wanted “to do more of this work.”

Through her contacts as a patient at Kaiser, she approached their home hospice department and asked whether they would be interested in adding music to their adjunct services. They asked her to come do a presentation for their staff; then, pleased with what they heard, added her program to their services. “Whenever a patient would ask for music,” says Hadidian, “I would go to their home and play for them.” She says she had the privilege of working with about four patients over a six month period, before she found out that her own cancer had returned.

After her own six month “descent into the underworld” on receiving the bad news, Hadidian felt it would be too difficult to continue with hospice work, for her own reasons. “As I started to get a little better,” she recounts, “I began to look for ways that I could bring music to a larger constituency, a larger group of patients; maybe patients who need to get better! This was both for my own well-being, and from the desire to reach more people. That’s when I associated myself with Natalie Cox (a well-known Bay Area symphonic musician), and we started playing our healing work.”

In her own struggle with metastatic breast cancer, Hadidian has employed a wealth of alternatives. “You have to do your own healing,” she says, “That’s the conclusion I’ve come to.” In additional to conventional medicine, Hadidian relies on a “combination of nutritional therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, and Tibetan medicine.” “Doctors are technicians,” she says. “They can save your life, in emergency medicine, but as for maintaining your life, or improving its quality…” That seems to be up to the patient herself.

The tradition of using music in healing is a long one, according to an article in Early Music America, which claims that the Ebers Papyrus, from ancient Egypt, records the “use of incantations by Egyptian physicians to help heal the sick.”[i] The same article points out that while music healing is not intended to be curative, it is therapeutic and restorative, and mentions that “music’s positive effects on the human body are well-documented. Studies show that music can relax muscles, lower blood pressure, decrease basal metabolism and respiration rates, reduce stress, aid digestion, and stimulate the brain’s output of endorphins, which reduce pain and increase the efficiency of the immune system.”[ii]

It’s also clear that healing music is making inroads into the healthcare setting. A growing handful of hospitals and hospices across North America are establishing programs like what’s being done by the Healing Muses in the San Francisco Bay Area, and several programs — like the Music for Healing and Transition Program, and Christina Tourin’s International Harp Therapy Program — are certifying graduates specifically for work in these settings. (These programs aren’t the same as music therapy, nor do they call their graduates music therapists). The people, mainly established musicians, who are drawn to this work come from all backgrounds, geographical areas, musical preferences, and certainly the crystallizing, personal moments of why this particular work calls to them. It’s a fact that most of them, in the grand tradition of muses, are also women. And the work is primarily intended to be more supportive than interactive. Music washes over the patient and his or her family and loved ones, rather than being something that requires their participation.

How does her work as a “Healing Muse” differ from the rest of her work as a professional musician? The difference is profound, says Hadidian. “This is really holy work; it’s sacred; and it’s really humbling. This is not about ego, it’s not about performing on a stage and having people tell you how good you are. It’s about service.”

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Note: A previous version of this article was published by the author in the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients. The current version has been revised to include additional information.

[i] Devlin M, “Music and Healing.” Early Music America. Fall, 1999.

[ii] Idem.