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    At Lawrence General Hospital, youth musicians help patients heal

    Esha Bansal performs for Lawrence General patient John Michaud.
    Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
    Esha Bansal performs for Lawrence General patient John Michaud.

    In a room on the telemetry unit at Lawrence General Hospital, there came a quiet knock at the door.

    A petite 17-year-old entered with a violin, and was heartily welcomed by two patients watching television.

    “The band is here!” one quipped as Esha Bansal raised her bow and proceeded to play a lively Irish jig.

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    The two men smiled, clapped, and tapped their feet clad in hospital tread socks.

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    “That’s the best thing that’s happened since I’ve been here,” one of the patients, Joseph Vernile of North Andover, said after her song. “It’s uplifting, gives you something to think about instead of just laying here.”

    A hospital may be the last place you would expect to hear live music, but, according to MusicMDs, it should be one of the first.

    “It brings a new dimension to patient interaction — removing traditional barriers of language, education level, culture, race, and socioeconomic status,” said Bansal, a junior at Phillips Academy in Andover. She and her brother started the nonprofit, all-volunteer musical outreach program in Florida — where their family lives — in 2009.

    Music has long been considered a holistic form of healing; it’s believed to promote well-being and happiness, reduce stress, boost immunity, alleviate pain, enhance memory, promote physical rehabilitation, and reduce depression, fatigue, and blood pressure, among other benefits, according to the nonprofit American Music Therapy Association.

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    Bansal and her older brother, Varun, both musicians from a young age, became intrigued by the idea after seeing how their violin playing affected their grandmother as she was fighting cancer.

    “We noticed changes in her mood and her outlook,” recalled Bansal, who started playing violin and piano at age 7.

    That inspired the siblings — just 13 and 15 at the time — to form MusicMDs, starting with a pilot program at Holmes Regional Medical Center in their hometown of Melbourne, Fla.

    Since then, the program has broadened to three hospitals in Florida, as well as one in Houston, with music provided by high school and college students. Bansal started up the Lawrence General Hospital chapter, which now has seven members (all Phillips Academy students), in December 2012.

    Lawrence General volunteer coordinator Brenda LeBlanc said Bansal approached her about the program just as the hospital started exploring ways to incorporate music.

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    In the 17 months since then, students have given 35 performances in eight areas of the hospital, according to Bansal.

    And, as she and her fellow performers noted, the reactions and feedback have been overwhelming. On a hospital testimonial page, patients, staff, and family members have expressed gratitude and encouragement, called them angels and treasures, and said their music has been like a cure, offering them a new lease on life, turning their days around. Many have even been moved to tears.

    “All the practice I’ve ever done, all the lessons and rehearsals, all that effort is worth it when you’re able to bring joy to someone through the simple act of playing,” said 17-year-old violinist Evelyn Liu. It “not only brings entertainment and joy to the patients, but also allows musicians to share their love of music with others in a way that is constructive and beneficial.”

    Plus, it provides an unusual space for the young musicians to sharpen skills and learn about life.

    “Besides becoming a better musician, I have learned how to communicate better,” said violinist Alphonse Le, 17. Performing for the hospital patients has “helped me gain a deeper sense of understanding about the human connection.”

    The hope is to expand the program; because it’s free and volunteer-based (and there are no shortages of musicians in any given city), it can easily be replicated, Bansal said.

    “I get a lot of gratification,” she said. “I enjoy talking to patients and their families, playing for them. I’ve gotten to interact with thousands of wonderful people.”

    On a recent Saturday afternoon, with violin case and collapsible music stand in hand, Bansal headed up to Lawrence General’s fifth-floor telemetry unit, which is for patients requiring heart monitoring.

    Polite, polished, and dressed in black, she stopped at the nurse’s station, then set up her stand and removed her violin from its case.

    She started with Violin Concerto in G major by Joseph Haydn, playing for Lebanon native Nazek Chatila, seated outside her room with a walker.

    Chatila’s daughter, Ferial Blaik, stood beside her mother, rubbing her hair as Bansal played, encouraging her with, “You like that?”

    “Nice, very nice!” Chatila exclaimed when Bansal finished.

    “It’s wonderful,” said Blaik, of Salem, N.H., noting that her son played piano for her when she was going through an illness. “It’s great for the patients.”

    Bansal continued through the roughly 40-bed unit, lightly knocking on doors and asking whether patients would like to hear some music. Most agreed, greeting her performances with claps, smiles, and sincere thanks. (And a few family members even took video of her on their smartphones.) On more than one occasion, she relied on her Spanish to converse, and ended each piece with a bow and a wish: “I hope you get well soon. Have a great day.”

    For patient John Michaud of Lawrence, she launched into the sprightly fiddle song “Devil’s Dream.”

    “You were very good!” Michaud, with long white hair and matching beard, dressed in a hospital johnny, said when she was done.

    Eager to talk, he told her he started drumming at age 7, and was in a band as a teenager. “I was the youngest drummer in Lawrence,” he said proudly.

    “Music is very special,” he continued. “Music is beautiful for everybody. It makes you feel good; you make other people feel good too.”

    That sort of interaction beyond the music is an integral part of the program, LeBlanc explained.

    “She’s not just playing, she’s talking to them,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a wonderful gift she’s giving the patients.”

    Meanwhile, down in the lobby, 15-year-old pianist Tim Ossowski was set up next to floor-to-ceiling windows as the Saturday afternoon light streamed in.

    As he played some Chopin etudes on a Yamaha electronic piano, patients, nurses, and visitors coming in and out stopped, if only for a moment or two, to listen; others sat for a bit to watch him play. As he finished each piece, he was met with a small round of applause.

    “He’s doing a great job,” one nurse remarked as she wheeled a patient outside. “He’s relaxing me.”

    “That’s pretty much all I’m going for, is to cheer them up a little,” Ossowski said during a break. “It sets up a nice atmosphere in a hospital.”

    For details on the program, visit www.musicmds.org.