Reclaiming a voice with the healing power of music
MEDWAY — Tracey Raisis is a connoisseur of two of life’s finest things: food and music.
A fixture in the Boston restaurant business for years, the vibrant and gregarious Raisis, 74, worked as a maître d’ for 19 years at two Back Bay institutions, The Capital Grille and Abe & Louie’s.
“Tracey was the first smiling individual you saw when you arrived, and generally the last one you saw as you left,” said Richard Brackett, the former boss at the Capital Grille.
In the 1970s, Raisis was one of the first bartenders at Charlie Sarkis’s restaurant Charley’s Eating and Drinking Saloon .
“Tracey is best described as the mayor of Back Bay,” said Brackett. “He was the kind of guy who would call you to tell you that your favorite soup was on the menu that day,” said Gerry Lynch, a former Abe & Louie’s colleague.
One of Raisis’s other great passions is music. He grew up in the era of folk greats Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, attending their concerts in Boston. He had a collection of more than 2,000 jazz LPs in his basement. Many of his friends mention his encyclopedic knowledge of songs across genres; Lynch still has jazz tapes Raisis made for him 20 years ago.
Now, Raisis is no longer welcoming patrons at the door of restaurants, and music has taken on a different role in his life. He had a debilitating stroke in March 2014 and lost much of his ability to speak and mobility on his right side. He has been doing physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy — and, recently, music therapy. Music is no longer something he simply enjoys; it’s a part of his recovery.
“He’s been cognizant since day one,” said his wife, Karen Bell, whom he married in 2011, though they’ve been together since 1996. “But he’s trying to regain the ability to express himself.”
While he was recovering in Spaulding Hospital in Cambridge, Raisis began music therapy, which is part of the rehabilitation program for stroke patients. He continued it when he moved to Spaulding’s Charlestown facility. In May, he started participating in it once every other week.
Music therapy has become an increasingly mainstream type of treatment over the last decade, gaining prominence after it helped former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords regain speech after she was shot in 2011. There are now more than 5,000 practicing music therapists in the United States and many are on staff at hospitals, including Boston Children’s Hospital.
Earlier this month, Raisis sat across from Chrissy Cetnar in the library at Medway Country Manor nursing home, one of several where he has lived since his stroke. (He has since moved to another one.) Cetnar works for MedRhythms, a neurologic music therapy company based in Boston and Portland, Maine. Music therapy can cover many things, including playing music in hospitals to promote well-being, but neurologic music therapy focuses on the brain.
Cetnar held Raisis’s hand. he nodded, shook his head, sometimes shrugging and raising an eyebrow, though he wasn’t speaking.
“My name is Tracey,” Cetnar sang, to a simple tune. “My name is . . . ,” Raisis imitated. He couldn’t quite finish the phrase. Cetnar hummed the tune she’d just sung. “My name is Tracey,” said Raisis.
What seems like a simple sing-song game is actually melodic intonation therapy, a complicated way to trigger neurologic pathways. Cetnar rhythmically taps Raisis’s left hand as she sings the words. Through the combination of tapping and singing, she’s trying to activate the undamaged areas of his brain to trigger speech.
“We’re trying to use the patient’s unaffected ability to sing to facilitate speech production,” said Cetnar. Usually, stroke patients are affected in the left side of the brain, which controls speech, she said, but not the right side of the brain, where music and rhythm are primarily processed.
Last Monday was Raisis’s fourth session with Cetnar. For an hour, Cetnar alternately held a guitar and an iPhone in a pink case that doubled as a metronome. She strummed the guitar and did a warm-up with Raisis. She sang “lee, lay, lo, la” and “nee, nay, no, na” and asked him to repeat the sounds.
He did, stumbling sometimes. When that happened, Cetnar would point out how he could use his tongue differently. By the end of the warm-up, Raisis repeated the sounds fluidly, speaking as she sang.
Then they worked on common and necessary phrases, such as “pain in my leg” and “arm hurts.” She would sing the phrases and he would repeat. They also did mobility exercises, tapping along with the iPhone-metronome’s rhythm, and sang along to “Hound Dog” and “Sweet Caroline”— with Cetnar singing most of the lyrics, and Raisis filling in some of the words.
During “Sweet Caroline,” Raisis started to tear up. Cetnar stopped strumming and singing for a minute.
“Sometimes this gets really emotional for him, because music is emotion, especially for someone like Tracey,” said Bell, as they paused the session. “I went to BU’s music school and he knows so much more about music than me.”
Cetnar said that the goals of music therapy vary wildly from patient to patient, but the primary goal for language is always functional speech. “Is Tracey going to be able to have a conversation like you and I? No. But we want him to get better at communicating his functional needs,” said Cetnar.
Since the stroke, Raisis’s journey to recovery hasn’t been linear, said Bell. There were some months when he could walk with a cane. Then there were setbacks — he was recently hospitalized for a urinary tract infection and is back in a wheelchair again. Now he’s better, and working with Cetnar again.
But there’s also the issue of paying for the music therapy, which costs $100 per hour. Bell, who can only afford it once every other week because it’s not covered by insurance, has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for weekly sessions. Regularity is important for the recovery process, said MedRhythms president Owen McCarthy. A patient can make progress and then regress if they aren’t going it often enough.
“He’s always been trapped in his body for two years, unable to really speak and that’s what he did for a living his whole life, is talk to people,” said Bell. “I really believe music is his way back into the world.”