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Electric Cello Inside the Hospital: When Music Becomes Medicine

Most doctors would carry a stethoscope or maybe even a blood pressure monitor when entering a patient’s room. However, a young medical student is breaking norms by bringing his electric cello into the hospital for music therapy for patients with cancer and life-threatening ailments.

Iain Forrest, 27, a third-year MD-PhD student at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, has found a way to combine both his life’s passions: medicine and music.

In the hospital, you can occasionally hear Forrest’s electric cello over the typical melancholic beeps of heart monitors and the scurry of nurses’ footsteps down the hall. 

When Forrest began playing the cello at age 10, he focused on classical music. But by the time he reached college, he had branched out into other genres, playing songs from Justin Bieber, Coldplay, and John Legend.

After finishing undergraduate school in Maryland, where he performed occasionally, Forrest moved to New York City and began playing more often, finding audiences on city streets and subway platforms, as well as in clubs and concert halls. Forrest, who goes by the stage name Eyeglasses, even performed at Radio City Music Call with Josh Groban in 2020 and at the 2022 opening game ceremony at Yankee Stadium.

It was only in medical school that he realized who needed music the most: people in hospitals.

Forrest had read about the benefits of music therapy, including studies that showed improved recovery rates and lower stress among patients and providers. For instance, a recent review reported that music therapy can significantly increase overall quality of life for patients with cancer over 1 to 2 months. The effects can be pronounced: The review authors found that music therapy decreased patients’ anxiety, depression, and pain more than standard care.

At Mount Sinai, Forrest helped cofound a student organization, “Music at Bedside,” with the guidance of two faculty advisors, Steve Itzkowitz, MD, and Rainier Soriano, MD. Every week or so, Forrest and colleagues receive a request to play in the hallways or at the bedside.

The feeling Forrest gets from his intimate sessions with patients and their families is different from when he’s playing on the streets of New York City. While in the subway or at a professional gig, he loves seeing people smile. He’s even joked that people have missed their train listening to him play.

But when he sees patients light up, it gives him a different sense of purpose — he can provide a little joy to people who may feel frightened or alone.

One performance has stuck with him.

Forrest received a request to play for a patient inside Mount Sinai’s palliative care unit. The patient had advanced cancer with limited time left. The man’s family was in the room and asked Forrest and his fellow musicians to play “Let It Be” by The Beatles, one of the patient’s favorite songs.

“As soon as we started playing you could immediately see the patient’s expression change. What was listless and tired before had transformed,” Forrest recalled. “His eyes lit up and he actually smiled.”

When the song ended, there was silence. And the patient’s family began sobbing. They said they hadn’t seen their loved one smile in a very long time. 

“It’s touching moments like that that make the work 100% worth it,” Forrest said. “It’s just a wonderful sight to see.”

Forrest’s music hasn’t touched just patients and families, but the hospital staff as well. Tamara Solly, RN, nurse manager at Mount Sinai, said her team also requests music.

“A lot of the time the music would work its way down the whole unit and be helpful not just for the patients but my entire staff,” Solly said. “It’s uplifting to hear live music while you’re taking care of sick patients in the hospital.”

Forrest said he plans to keep performing at the hospital in his spare time and hopes to continue after he graduates from medical school.

“Anybody who’s been to a hospital, or visited a loved one, knows how isolating it can be,” Forrest said. “The depression can be felt in the air, so you have to really try to give some joy to these people during tough times.”

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