SIOUX CITY | The high notes and trills of a single, silver flute cut through ringing telephones in the nurses' station and carry throughout the hospital halls like a street performer in a subway station.
Gowned patients appear in doorways to see Natasha Hongsermeier playing a piece of classical music with pursed lips.
Since the beginning of the school year, the senior at Morningside College with a triple major in biology, chemistry and music has organized numerous outings like this, adding up to more than 300 hours of music performed at UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's and two retirement communities.
About 30-40 performers have dedicated their time and talent to Musicians for Healing, a community service project founded by Hongsermeier.
It was inspired by a fellow flautist, Diane Gross, whose 27-year teaching career in instrumental music was rudely interrupted in 2004 when she was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a very rare and aggressive incurable cancer of the connective or supportive tissues of the body.
Since then, she has had 11 surgeries, 79 radiation treatments and a lung removed -- at which point, it looked like she would never play the flute again.
Instead of testing her air capacity with a spirometer, a doctor urged Gross to put down the apparatus and pick up her flute.
That fortitude eventually led to a volunteer adjunct position at Morningside College, teaching 10 flute students, including Hongsermeier.
During one lesson, they began talking about the need for music therapy in Sioux City, and Gross mentioned Musicians on Call, which brings the healing power of live music to patients in health care facilities.
Volunteer musicians go from room to room, giving bedside performances.
After spending far too much time in a hospital, Gross could see the need for music in these quiet, scary spaces.
“It’s been an integral part of my recovery,” she said. “It helps me to stay very hopeful, and I really have a goal to live for, which is to try each day to do my best and to help students.”
The musical pre-med student latched on to the idea and contacted the national nonprofit, which was founded in New York City in 1999, and asked about starting a chapter in Sioux City. But the metro would be one of the smallest locations by far, since the program is currently established in Los Angeles, Nashville, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
Sioux City was just too small to get backed by Musicians on Call.
Looking to her teacher’s positive, selfless service, Hongsermeier took it upon herself to get a similar program off the ground here. She reached out to local health care facilities, partnered with them and recruited musicians from Morningside to perform.
“When you’re in these settings as a patient, you’re scared,” Gross said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. Family members are scared. There’s a silence that happens that doesn’t really have a word to describe what it is. The music can take a person and transform them and they don’t even realize they’ve been transformed or calmed or filled with hope. Maybe it takes their mind away from their situation for a moment or two. It’s just the most marvelous thing. The music begins where the words leave off.”