250 Nurses Drum to Connect

Megan Gunnell, LMSW, MT-BC

University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center

On March 5-6, 2010, The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Nurse Practitioners and the American Nurses Credentialing Center sponsored the 3rd Annual Oncology Nursing Conference, “Navigating Oncology Nursing,” outside of Ann Arbor, MI.  The planning committee wanted to end this 2-day conference for nurses from the Great Lakes States with a replenishment exercise that would promote self care, decrease stress, increase community and be fun.  Drumming was the perfect choice.  There was only one problem: Where would we get instruments for 250 nurses?  Thanks to the support of Remo and West Music, we arranged shipping for the instruments and we were off and “drumming” in no time!

Nurses who attend this conference are familiar with assisting vulnerable and seriously ill oncology patients through their cancer journey from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.  Their work involves staying up-to-date on the latest, ever-changing treatment options, diagnoses and evidence-based care.  Because this work can be so challenging, self-care for the caregiver is very important, yet often overlooked due to long days and busy schedules.  After multiple back-to-back sessions of clinical information, the nurses in attendance looked ready for a stress-buster.  

As they entered the conference room, they were greeted by tables and rows of colorful instruments to choose from.  We were surprised to note that many participants tried to sneak in without selecting a drum. A simple announcement -- “If you don’t select an instrument, you’ll have to sing with me” – got them rushing to the table to pick out a shaker or djembe.  

Despite their initial hesitation, they quickly engaged and within seconds of taking the stage to lead the group, I could feel their anticipation to play.  We started with a “rumble” and instantly the room was full of laughter and excitement.  The group was also quick to settle into a steady beat as we moved into entrainment.  It’s difficult to describe the feeling of 250 medical professionals uniting through rhythm and what that metaphor means to those who often feel isolated and alone in their stressful and complicated work roles.  After allowing the entrainment section to take on a life of its own, the participants really began to let go of their inhibition and cut loose.  

There were groups of nurses at circle tables who began to dance in their seats – tapping their toes, shimmying their shoulders and loosening any head or neck tension through free movement to the beat.  About half way through the 1 hour session, we asked that everyone playing a sound shape encircle the room to create a heartbeat for the group.  We dimmed the lights and engaged the participants in a music meditation with heartbeat pulse rhythm and Native American flute music played by Chance Dellas, a trained HealthRhythms facilitator and our University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center Music Therapy intern.  

The music and meditation portion gave the nurses a chance to catch their breath, notice their heartbeat and tap into their own inner rhythm.  After that, the group was back into a very energetic build up to the grand finale.  After some shaping of volume and tempo increases, a group of nurses on the planning committee seated in the front of the conference room spontaneously leapt to their feet and started jubilantly dancing around the room creating a giant conga line.  About half of the group joined them as they circled around playing their tambourines over their heads, skipping and laughing joyfully through the room, encircling a very entertained group of players still seated in the middle supporting the pulse with their solid downbeat.  Again, another wonderful metaphor of support and trust for the entire group of players.    

Overall, in the hour we were together drumming in unity, the group transformed from initial inhibition and hesitation to total freedom, supported community, team building and fun.  The lasting effect remains weeks later as I pass some of these same nurses in the hall at work.  With a smile and nod, I know exactly what they’re thinking – “When can we drum up some fun again soon?”