Inside the Methodist Hospital COVID-19 unit, the constant flood of patients can overwhelm the overstretched nursing staff.

It’s a stressful environment, but on some days, the soothing strains of musical melodies pierce the din, offering at least momentary respite from the chaos.

The music fills hospital rooms and hallways thanks to Constanza Roeder, the founder and CEO of Hearts Need Art, a nonprofit that employs artists and musicians to entertain and uplift stressed patients and staff with live music, art classes, and workshops.

“We didn’t know we needed it until it happened,” said Mary Hernandez, director of nursing practice for Methodist Healthcare System. As director of the COVID-19 unit from July through April and now director of the hospital’s burn unit, Hernandez can attest to the healing power of the arts, having seen the musicians and artists of Hearts Need Art help improve patient outcomes and staff morale.

“Had it not been for Constanza,” Hernandez said, Methodist might not have pursued such enhancements to traditional hospital care. “That’s just one avenue that we weren’t thinking of.”

The unshakable things

A leukemia diagnosis at age 13 shattered Roeder’s idea that the world was safe, she said. She had to adjust her worldview to survive, to overcome the anxiety, stress, and despondency that can set in for those with cancer.

“The actual trauma of the disease and the treatment” are difficult enough, she said, but “the emotional, spiritual, and physical recovery after takes way more time.” She was grateful to discover the “unshakable” things in her life: God, the love of others, and art.

“The arts were a big constant in my life,” she said, “and they helped reinforce the encouragement and truth that I needed to stand firm” through what she described as “the earthquake” of her cancer experience.

Carmen Lopez Regalado listens to music performed by Constanza Roeder at Methodist Hospital.
Carmen Lopez Regalado listens to music performed by Constanza Roeder at Methodist Hospital.

When she moved with her military husband to San Antonio in 2008, she looked for ways to connect with the cancer community and discovered that Methodist Hospital has the largest inpatient oncology unit in South Texas. She also discovered the disparity between the hospital environment for kids with cancer, which entails colorful rooms, art activities, and plentiful social engagement, and the stark environments of adult oncology units.

Roeder brought her background as a professional musical theater actress to bear on her volunteerism, and became the musician-in-residence at Methodist Hospitals in 2010. She developed her work, often singing with an electronic keyboard directly to patients in their rooms, into Hearts Need Art, in 2016.

Roeder has seen the mood boost that hearing music and making art can provide to cancer patients, even in their darkest moments. She recalls singing “Amazing Grace” for one patient who hadn’t spoken since having a stroke. The patient joined in on the song, and his speech returned afterward. Research backs up her observations that music and art can aid in the healing process by improving moods and relieving pain.

Needing a boost

Cassie DeBolt can personally attest to the power of Hearts Need Art. DeBolt also received a cancer diagnosis as a young woman, though at age 21 she was assigned to the adult oncology unit at Methodist.

Hearts Need Art didn’t formally exist yet, though Roeder was already visiting patient rooms to sing and play piano. DeBolt has played piano since age 3, but weakness from her chemotherapy treatments made it impossible for her to play.

“I was going through a really stressful time,” she said. “Having her presence in that hospital room really lifted my spirits. I always looked forward to when she would come in my room.”

DeBolt was so convinced that Roeder’s music helped her healing process that after recovering, she went to work as a Hearts Need Art musician, playing in the very outpatient chemotherapy room where she once received treatment. “It was a way for me to give back, to pay it forward a little bit,” she said.

When the pandemic shut down all live music and art in hospitals, Roeder quickly pivoted to virtual music presentations, recognizing the value of even recorded music not only to the influx of COVID-19 patients but to overstressed hospital staff.

Hernandez said Hearts Need Art has helped her nursing staff cope with the traumatic experiences brought on by COVID-19, including dealing with the rapid decline of patients, frequent death, and the burden of telling families their loved ones have died.

Nurses have a calling to help others, she said, and can suffer when they are unable to help their patients and each other. “[Hearts Need Art] really played a part in the mental state for our health care workers in an effort to help everyone else.”

Hearts Need Art artists have painted window murals specifically for health care workers, including one depicting frontline health workers as superheroes with the words, “Life is tough, but so are you.” The nonprofit’s new “gratitude grams” program gives staff a chance to sign up for weekly messages of appreciation or send them to others.

A Hearts Need Art mural depicting health care workers as superheroes. Credit: Courtesy / Hearts Need Art

“We’re not just there to support the patients,” Roeder said. “Our health care workers are a really vulnerable group right now, so we’re playing music on COVID units, and ICUs, and all the places where health care staff need a boost.”

A lot to be done

The pandemic has helped Hearts Need Art expand its reach virtually to locations in New York, Southern California, and the Midwest, as has its “Arts for the Health of It” podcast.

And while Roeder is open to expanding the live-contact component of Hearts Need Art to other cities, “there’s a lot to be done at home first.” Her organization can reach 100 acute care hospital beds in San Antonio at any given time, she said, but there are 5,400 in the city.

She wants to reach more patients and staff and looks to Hearts Need Art’s annual Night of 1,000 Hearts gala on Sept. 18 and other fundraising mechanisms to help reach her goals.

“Right now we’re spread pretty thin,” she said. “We really need more community support, because the need is massive.”

Roeder credited her staff for keeping the mission of Hearts Need Art alive during its most challenging moment.

“We’re still here standing, and continuing to be flexible and serve during such a high need time.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...