Intensive care is no place for the faint-hearted. Improvements in medical technology, particularly the development of the modern positive pressure ventilator, have transformed our efforts at the boundary between life and death. A few decades ago, many of the people in that ward next door would already be dead.
But progress comes at a cost. The noise of life-support machines and vital-sign monitors is a constant background. Phones ring, bin lids bang, staff call for help and doctors are constantly being paged to the next emergency. The racket frequently exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for safe noise levels.
In her book Notes on Nursing (1859), Florence Nightingale wrote of patients’ need for diversity in their sensory surroundings. ‘The effect in sickness of beautiful objects, of variety of objects, and especially of brilliancy of colour, is hardly at all appreciated … People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too.’
Music has begun to emerge as a specifically powerful therapeutic medium. Led by the psychologist Dorothy Wade, the team at the University College Hospital, London (UCH) unit has been pioneering new methods of reducing the stress of the intensive care experience. The approach is preventative rather than reactive. ‘We train nurses in the unit to talk to patients about any worries or fears,’ Wade told me, ‘and to remind them they are in a safe place. We encourage patients to listen to music or relaxation exercises, and to enjoy favourite pastimes such as reading.’