Gymnopedie: Music in the ICU

Gymnopedie: Music in the ICU published in ICM journal.

Last year’s theme for the Health Education England essay competition was “holding onto humanity”. What better way to write about this topic than to explore the role of music in modern medicine. I’m proud to say that the organisers agreed with me, and have presented me with 2nd prize for my short piece “Gymnopédie”.

In Gymnopédie, I first examine the crest of the Royal College of Anaesthetists. The many methods we have for alleviating pain these days are represented by symbols in the crest. From cocaine derived from the coca plant, to opioids extracted from the opium poppy, the numerous botanical symbols tell of the history of pharmacology in anaesthesia. But it is the motto “divinum sedare dolorem” (it is divine to alleviate pain) I home in on. Dolorem also features as part of the musical directions in Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie no.1. Strange, considering it is widely regarded as one of the most relaxing pieces of music. Following this thread, I recount an episode of a post-operative patient whose pain was difficult to control despite our best efforts, until the appearance of volunteer guitarist Leigh to the ICU.

Tracing Gymnopédie back through a poem by French bohemian J.P. Contamine de Latour, I journey back to it’s original use to describe a Greek dance. The imagery led me to imagine the ICU patients being transported to a sunny Greek island. Staying with this, I explore the ancient Greek understanding of health and healing, through their deities and the intimate connection between music and medicine. And then, as the music fades, I lead the reader back to the ICU, framed within the ancient lens of Asclepius and his daughters, to feel the palpable connections between music and medicine, even in today’s world.

Apollo and his lyre

The announcement was made at the East Midlands Faculty Educator Developmental Symposium on 12 October 2022. An earlier version was published by Hektoen International. The version on record has been published by Intensive Care Medicine Journal, and is its top Social Media Impact piece for 2022!

Read it here

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