As Renee Teeple sat in the chemotherapy infusion area, her friend spotted a woman walking through the Spectrum Health Cancer Center with a guitar.
She jumped up and approached the woman and asked if she played music for patients.
“Would you come and play for my friend?” she asked.
Yes, and yes.
That is how Renee met Erin Wegener, a Spectrum Health music therapist who brings peace, creativity and healing to patients through music.
Erin took a seat near Renee and asked what type of music she wanted to hear.
Something relaxing, Renee said. Preferably Christian music.
A few strums of guitar, and Renee felt the power of music therapy.
“Erin started playing a worship song and that was it—I just fell apart,” Renee said. “Tears were rolling down my face.
“It was just so amazing. I loved it.”
That chance meeting led to a series of music therapy sessions for Renee, bringing a sense of calm as she faced the challenges and uncertainty of cancer treatment.
It’s a mission for Wegener—helping people through music. She has seen time and time again how music touches body, mind and soul.
“From the science side, music is giving us dopamine in our brain,” she said. “It’s improving our mood in that way.”
It delivers physiological effects, too. The heart rate slows. Blood pressure drops. Tense muscles relax.
‘This is curable’
Renee, a registered nurse, once cared for patients with cancer, never thinking she would one day be in their shoes.
Fifteen years ago, she put her nursing career on hold to stay home full-time with her children, Josiah, 15, and Dawson, 10.
Last spring, she noticed a swollen lymph node next to her collar bone.
An X-ray revealed a mass in her chest.
She underwent a bronchoscopy and then surgery to biopsy the lymph node.
On May 28, she learned her diagnosis: She had Hodgkins lymphoma. The next day, she met with oncologist Brett Brinker, MD.
The cancer was in an early stage, he said, adding “There is great potential for a cure.”
Renee soon began four cycles of chemotherapy. Over the next four months, she received eight infusions at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
Her husband, Larry, is a UPS driver. And with the surge in online orders spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, his job kept him busy.
Renee’s friends joined her chemotherapy support system, accompanying her to appointments.
“Larry has been a huge support for me through this,” Renee said. “But it’s been nice to have my friends bring me to the cancer center, as well.”
It was at her third infusion appointment when her friend Charlene Martin spotted Wegener with the guitar and asked her to play music.
“It was just a gift to have her come and be able to do that,” Renee said. “It was very, very special.”
Wegener said she usually gets referrals from nurses and social workers for patients who would like music therapy. But she sometimes connects with new patients while working with others at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
For those with cancer, music therapy can provide emotional or spiritual support and help reduce stress, anxiety and pain.
Sometimes she works with patients in creative projects, such as song writing or drawing.
During the four-hour infusion sessions, Erin typically spent a half-hour playing music for Renee.
Sometimes, she played familiar songs. Other times, she led a guided relaxation session, playing mellow music as she encouraged Renee to focus on her breathing and relax her muscles.
The session especially helped Renee cope with a pre-treatment medication that made her feel jumpy.
“It was amazing how it really helped calm my insides down,” she said.
And there was the spiritual uplift. She couldn’t attend church because of her suppressed immune system and restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19. But Renee felt a spiritual connection through the music that accompanied her infusion sessions.
“What I love is the environment it creates,” she said. “The other patients can hear and enjoy her, too, when she is there.
“This is way more than music therapy. It is just a ministry she is able to do.”
After the chemotherapy sessions, Renee said a PET scan showed the tumor had shrunk to about half its former size.
Dr. Brinker scheduled her for radiation treatments to treat the remaining tumor.
“It’s in such a small area that we think we can take care of it with radiation focused on one small area of her chest,” he said. “Radiation techniques these days can really hone down on a lymph node and spare a lot of healthy tissue around it.”
Renee began a series of radiation treatments in early November. Wegener arrived at her first sessions to provide music therapy.
‘My soul can speak’
Wegener has long nurtured a love of music.
As a child, she played piano. Later, she learned to play drums, percussion and guitar.
By the time she went to college, she knew she wanted to use her musical gifts to help others. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music therapy from Western Michigan University.
Working with patients, she draws on her training and experience to choose the musical interventions that can help.
For Wegner, providing that support to patients is immensely fulfilling.
“I believe music can help us feel, process and express our suffering, blessings, humanity, joys and fears,” she said.
“When I am able to play live music or sing, I feel like that is fully who I am. My soul can speak. I am able to speak through my music and that is rewarding in itself.”
Dr. Brinker appreciates the way Wegener provides emotional support for his patients. He, too, relies on music in his own life.
“As a physician, I play guitar to relax,” he said. “It’s been my outlet for my whole life. That’s what I do when the world gets a little too intense.”
“I am a big believer in music therapy and a big believer in music,” he said.
He especially admires the way Wegener relates to patients, no matter their age, background or musical tastes.
“She always seems to come up with just the right song,” he said.
And as she worked with Renee during chemotherapy and radiations treatments, Wegener was inspired by her strength.
“I am just amazed by Renee,” she said. “I don’t know what her entire journey has been like, but she has been so positive and such a bright person.”