U.S. Army Veteran and Bay Pines VA Community Living Center resident Pierre Harrell poses for a picture backstage with award-winning singer, songwriter and performer Natalie Cole, right, and licensed practical nurse Karin Alozade during a January concert in St. Petersburg.
ST. PETERSBURG – If you lost your ability to see, speak, move and eat, what would make your life worth living? For Pierre Harrell, a resident at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System’s Community Living Center in St. Petersburg, the answer to that question is music.
Recently he was able to attend a concert by Natalie Cole, the award-winning singer, songwriter and performer known for award winning hits such as “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)", "Inseparable" and "Our Love.”
With the help of staff members from the Bay Pines VA’s Recreational Therapy department, and their program fittingly called “Grant-a-Dream,” Harrell’s love of music culminated during a concert by one of his favorite singers in January. He not only attended the concert, he also had the opportunity to meet Cole backstage after the event.
Harrell, a 38-year-old U.S. Army Veteran from Dunedin, was originally admitted to the medical center in 1995 at the age of 21 while still on active duty with the 82nd Airborne Division headquartered in Fort Bragg, N.C. He was initially diagnosed with a serious degenerative condition that progressed rapidly, rendering him first unable to walk and then over the next several years, he became totally paralyzed – unable to eat, speak or move any part of his body with the exception of blinking.
In 2010, Harrell was admitted to the Bay Pines CLC, a nursing and rehabilitation setting where clinicians could better stabilize his condition.
According to Stuart Sidell, a lead recreation therapist at Bay Pines VA, before Harrell lost his ability to speak, a nurse asked him to share what made his life worth living. His response was “being able to listen to music is the best gift God gave me.”
Since that time, music has been an important part of Harrell’s life. Staff at the CLC even purchased a special mat fitted for his recliner chair that vibrates to the beat of the music on his CD player so that he can hear and feel the music throughout his body.
His entire body relaxes and a smile lights up his face, Sidell explained. He loves music, especially the older Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and Soul. His grandmother raised him listening to the great stars of all time, such as B.B. King and Nat King Cole.
“Because of his well-known and documented positive response to music, nursing staff asked about the possibility of Pierre attending a concert by someone whose music he was known to enjoy, he said.
“When they heard Natalie Cole was performing at the Mahaffey Theater, they notified the rest of the treatment team to arrange and make it possible for Pierre to attend.”
Two nursing employees and a recreation therapist attended the concert with Harrell. All were very close to him and had been involved in his care at the CLC since his admission. It was the first time in ten years that Harrell had left an institutional setting.
“It was an awesome experience watching Pierre at the concert,” said Karin Alozade, a licensed practical nurse who works closely with Pierre and accompanied him during the concert. “He was completely in the moment, totally focused, more alert than I have ever seen him. The music brought total joy to him.”
According to Sidell, that is what the Grant-a-Dream program is all about.
“We’re here to do whatever we can for veterans – to provide the very best care and to do whatever we can to improve their health and well-being,” he said.
Originally developed in 2002 by the Bay Pines VA’s Recreation Therapy Department, the Grant-a-Dream program provides veterans with life-limiting conditions the opportunity to experience meaningful activity of their choice to enhance their quality of life.
As part of the program, recreation therapists identify Veterans who would benefit from the program and obtain medical clearances from appropriate medical providers for the Veterans to participate. Other medical professionals, usually nursing staff, have also identified Veterans for the program because of their relationships with their patients.
The dreams that have been fulfilled are as varied as the Veterans themselves are. One elderly female Veteran benefitted from having her son flown in from Arkansas, who she wanted to see before she died. Another Veteran co-piloted an airplane that included flying over Bay Pines VA – his home until his death. One Veteran went skydiving with his recreation therapist, who also jumped out of the airplane that day; and another went sailing. It is estimated that more than 200 Veterans have benefitted from the program.