Doctor’s music is medicine to patient’s ears

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, an emergency physician at Brantford General Hospital in southern Ontario still clearly recalls her ‘aha moment.’

She was sitting on a bed overlooking the rice paddies north of Calcutta India. A catastrophic earthquake had devastated a nearby area.

“I contacted some relief agencies and asked what I could do to help and they told me that they needed doctors and nurses,” Dr. Wiwcharuk said. “I decided then and there that I would leave my career as a musician behind and become a physician.”

That moment that transformed Jill’s life was in 1998.

Fast-forward to this past Christmas. Patricia Kuyper suffered chest pains and came to the emergency department at the Brantford General Hospital. She was about to experience her ‘aha moment.’

“I was laying on the stretcher when suddenly I heard someone playing a violin,” Kuyper said. “The song was ‘Away In A Manger’ and right away patients looked up and a sense of calm began to settle among us.”

The violinist was Dr. Wiwcharuk, an emergency physician at the BGH. She came to work early that afternoon with her violin to play for patients in the ER. For almost half an hour Dr. Wiwarchuk strolled throughout the rooms and corridors of the emergency department playing songs of the season and other selections for patients and their families- even agreeing to play songs requested by patients.

Kuyper said, “As I was laying there in the ER I came to the realization that music can be quite useful for treating patients in the hospital.”

The impromptu violin concert ended and Dr. Wiwarchuk placed the violin in its case and donned her greens. Her first patient was Pat Kuyper.

“I couldn’t believe how nice Dr. Wiwcharuk is. She has very good bedside manner,” Kuyper said.

Dr. Wiwcharuk comes from a musical family – her mother is an accomplished concert pianist and has accompanied Jill at past concerts.

“I was raised in Kamloops British Columbia and attended the University of Victoria studying for a degree in music performance and in arts.”

“While I was at UVic I busked in Victoria to pay for a plane ticket to Europe where I spent six months hitchhiking with my violin and busking to pay for it all,” Wiwcharuk says. “Playing Bach and Beethoven on the streets of Europe pays well!”

When Wiwcharuk graduated she packed her violin and went to India for five months where she worked at a home for disadvantaged children and began a music program. She eventually returned to Canada where, accompanied by her mother, performed concerts to raise money and gathered donated violins to take with her back to India.

“This time I stayed for an entire year,” Wiwcharuk says, adding, “I taught the children to play the violin and before I left I also trained a teacher who is still operating the program today. It is very successful.”

Before applying to medical school Wiwcharuk had more travel to do.

“I still had some adventures that I needed to pursue so when I left India I went to Holland and spent a year studying Dutch before traveling on to Russia to learn their language,” Wiwcharuk said.

Eventually Wiwcharuk retuned to Canada to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory where she met her husband, Jay, who is a jazz musician. When she was accepted at McMaster University medical school they moved to southern Ontario.

“We had our son, Oliver, while I was at medical school and all three of us backpacked through Turkey when Oliver was only six months old- and he was great,” Wiwcharuk says. “We also now have another boy, Simon, who is four.”

Wiwcharuk graduated from medical school in 2008 and now works in the emergency department at BGH and at a maternity centre and inner city shelters in Hamilton.

Christmas is a time for Dr. Wiwcharuk to keep in touch with her music- it’s a big part of her life. But not just at the hospital.

“I played on Christmas Day while serving meals at a shelter and some of the people came up to me saying, Dr. Jill, you play the violin, too!”

“The fiddle tunes tend to lighten the atmosphere and get patients toes tapping,” she says. “Patients start to open up and tell you their stories. Clearly, you have to pick the appropriate time and only play if the patient and their family agree. The therapeutic value of music is remarkable.”

Pat Kuyper agrees.

“My visit to the BGH emergency with Dr. Wiwarchuk was awesome!”