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    Music therapist Brian Schreck turns heartbeats into songs.

    Photos by Terrence Humphrey

    Angie Woodward brings a different friend with her each time she goes to chemo at the Norton Cancer Center downtown — she’s had somewhere between 25 and 28 different people accompany her so far. She buys them lunch, but they have to fetch it, since she’s hooked up to what’s essentially poison. Chemo sessions can take a long time, sometimes up to six hours, and for a life-or-death medical procedure, it’s pretty boring. Before Woodward brings her friends, she tells them to practice up on their board games — she’s had plenty of chemo since the fall of 2013, and she’s developed serious skills at hangman, Battleship, Chinese Checkers, Connect Four — though that one is terribly dull — and Scrabble. She’s learned not to play any librarians at that game — they know too many words. One rule: No medical terms. 

    Games fill up the slow time. But sometimes, Woodward puts them down and picks up a ukulele.

    She’d never held one before that day Brian Schreck brought a couple of them by during a chemo treatment, one for her and one for her friend. Bald, with a neat red beard worthy of a sea captain and a voice like warm tea, 37-year-old Schreck exudes calm. He showed them how to play some basic chords, and they strummed along as he played guitar. Woodward, 65, has had two mastectomies and is in treatment for tumors along her chest, back and arm. Her condition is not curable, but treatment may help slow the disease’s progression. She has decided to buy herself a uke. 

    Schreck is one of two music therapists who work for the Norton Cancer Institute. Armed with guitars, shakers, tambourines, enough drums for a circle worthy of Woodstock and recording equipment, Schreck uses music to help people in treatment for cancer. Woodward comes from a church with an a cappella choir, and Schreck has been recording her singing her favorite classics. She got her husband Bob to sing Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” with her. Schreck recorded her singing Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”, her voice still weak from treatment. It’s a special recording, and not just because of her message at the end — “I love you, Bob.” The beat of the song is Woodward’s heartbeat.

    Photo: Music therapist Brian Schreck in his office at the Norton
    Women's and Children's Hospital in St. Matthews. // Terrence Humphrey 

    Schreck has hundreds of recordings of his patients, many of them including the sound of their heartbeats. “It’s like building up a reservoir of a person,” he says. “Their laugh, their voice, their heart.” He’s the subject of an upcoming documentary called The Beat of the Heart, and he’s been teaching other music therapists his techniques. He’s cut into several stethoscopes to insert lapel mics into the tubing. In a few seconds he can record and then loop a heartbeat, making it immortal, turning the rhythm of life into the rhythm of song. A woman can hear her husband’s heartbeat joined with hers beneath their favorite ballad. A man can sing the blues in his heart along with his heart. A mother can play her iPod and hear her son’s stopped heartbeat start.


    Gary Johnson says the chemo doesn’t make him sick, like it does other people. (He knocks on the wooden arm of his chair for luck.) Instead, it takes his voice, which really sucks for someone who’s done karaoke for years. The 64-year-old is a real music buff — he has a room stacked floor to ceiling with records, tapes, CDs and 8-tracks. An old reel-to-reel recorder he used to take to concerts sits in a corner. His walls are adorned with Joni Mitchell, the Stones, Janis Joplin — a concert for the ages. Somewhere around here he has the lacy red panties he found in a room Mick Jagger had stayed in when Johnson worked maintenance at the Hyatt in the ’80s.

    Johnson has tried a few different kinds of palliative care since receiving his leukemia diagnosis — the massage therapy just felt creepy. When someone at Norton mentioned music therapy, he loved the idea. “You like the blues?” he asked Schreck, handing him one of those little cans of Sprite or Sierra Mist you get in hospitals. “Slide,” he said, and Schreck’s strings groaned and jangled. Johnson made up verses on the spot, and that was the “Chemo Therapy Blues.” “Did you change it?” he asked Schreck when he heard the recording of his heart. It was hard to believe that beat was nothing but his own pulse, repeating and repeating, that it could repeat forever and ever, without end.

    Photo: Brian Schreck uses this device to record heartbeats. // Terrence Humphrey

    Schreck has worked in music therapy for more than a decade, and he’s used to endings. When he was in elementary school, his mother, a Eucharistic minister, would take him to a local nursing home to deliver Communion. The antiseptic smells, curtains darkly drawn, IVs dripping in half-light — it was all normal to Schreck. His mother was frank: “Mary died,” she’d say. “But she really loved the time she spent with you.” 

    “Basically, she taught me to not be afraid,” Schreck recalls. 

    “I can see you’re bored,” she told him one day at the nursing home. “Why don’t you go practice in the day room?” Schreck was around 10 years old. He’d been learning saxophone, and he “honked out” the tunes he was practicing. An old man got up from his chair and turned the TV off. He asked a woman in a wheelchair if she wanted to dance. She said yes, and he placed his hands on the handles of her chair, turning circles to the solo horn. Something is happening right now, Schreck thought. He already knew he was going to be a musician, but now he saw something different, something more: how a melody could lift old bones, how playing could pause the world — all its needles frozen above skin, its scalpels stopped, its death, for a moment, relenting — just long enough for a dance.

    This originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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