Yilu Ma, MS, MA, CMI, director, Interpreter Services Department
Nancy Kleiman, also fondly known as “the BWH harp lady,” has recently drawn media attention because of the soothing and peaceful melodies she plays on the harp, but rarely does she ever talk about herself and share her life story.
Shortly after the New Year, I had the privilege to sit with Nancy in my office. She greeted me with a brimming smile and a solid handshake. A big believer in serendipity, she started by recalling one day 18 years ago.
“My mom, dad and I came to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “My father, a proud Marine and musician who spent his time volunteering at a local blood donor center in Florida and encouraging people to donate blood, ironically got leukemia himself.”
A slight sadness was in Nancy’s voice.
“That day as we walked through the lobby, we heard a string quartet of doctors playing the most beautiful music. We stopped to listen and were soothed.”
The following year, after a short remission that allowed for a clinical trial, her dad was admitted to BWH, but passed away just before Christmas. Though deeply saddened, Nancy, a former nun, was inspired through prayer to use her highest musical gifts to release the energy and bring comfort and joy to others. A gifted musician from an early age, Nancy plays the trumpet, guitar, French horn and violin, but she was unclear what instrument she would play for this purpose. She knew that she wanted to play by patients’ bedsides, as she had sung Christmas carols to her dad during his last days.
Nancy kept searching and praying for the answer. Three months later, a friend died of cancer. Nancy, along with other musicians from around the world, came to play at the funeral; five harpists were playing close to the altar. The moment she saw them, she knew her instrument was meant to be the harp.
One day shortly after, Nancy saw her old friend, who was president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) at the time. He invited her to play the harp regularly at the hospital.
Nancy came to the Brigham because of an email she received ten years ago from a stranger, whose mother was dying. She asked if Nancy could come to Tower 15 to play for her.
“I wheeled my harp from BIDMC without any trouble, but somehow a major string kept breaking as I tuned it,” she said. “I prayed to the source of my music: ‘I’m your instrument and doing your work.’ It turned out that I played for a full hour, allowing the family to say goodbye to the mother, who was a pianist.”
On her way out that day, she met three BWH executives, and they asked for her card. Soon after, she received a call inviting her to play at the hospital. Nancy remembers that on her first day, a young woman brought her a CD and asked Nancy if she could play along to the music before her surgery. Nancy brought her harp to the Brigham’s post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) and played, and the whole unit became quiet.
“I’m an instrument, bringing energy and comfort to people through music,” said Nancy. “One day I was on the floor playing for a very sick patient who appeared agitated. As I began playing, he calmed down and became peaceful. He pronounced the word ‘Muzyka,’ which means ‘music’ in Polish, and then he passed away.”
Over the years, Nancy has played for and touched thousands of lives through her music. Not only has she played the harp throughout the Brigham campus, but also at local shelters, hospices, nursing homes and even at nurses’ weddings.
“I believe music is not only notes. Music heals. Music is tangible – one can feel and smell it,” said Patricia Reilly, MSN, RN, director of Caring and Healing Modalities, and Nancy’s supervisor. “I think for Nancy, synchronicity is a better word. She is a loving and authentic human being; she humanizes the environment; she is an angel!”
Shuyang Wang, a research specialist at BWH and Nancy’s best friend, echoed Pat’s sentiments.
“Nancy inspired me to become a harpist. While playing the harp, she connects with people through music, eye contact and comforting words.”
As I was writing about her, Nancy was down the hallway, playing her favorite, “Danny Boy,” in honor of her father, whose name was Danny.