When I introduce myself as “Betsy Braud, the jazz nurse,” people ask what I do and why I call myself a jazz nurse. I explain that nursing is my profession; that I incorporate music into my nursing and nursing into my music; and that I serve my community as a performer, presenter and arts educator.
Growing up in Louisiana, music has always been a part of my life. I began studying music when I was 8 years old, beginning with piano lessons and then switching to flute when I was 10. As an adolescent, I played flute in the school band and church and played with hippies in the park. As a teenager, I used music to manage grief. I lost my father, an uncle, a brother and a dear friend all before I turned 17. I lost another brother two years ago. If not for music, I don’t know where I would be.
I believe in the healing power of music. There are mounds of literary references that tout the benefit of music and mounting evidence that demonstrates how music can heal. I have experienced it for myself, up close and personal.
Genetically predisposed to being a healer, my first career track was music therapy. My parents were both physicians and four of my siblings are either physicians or nurses. I was studying music therapy when I decided to pursue a degree in music performance. My life changed in 1977 when I heard Alvin Batiste, a legendary clarinetist and educator, perform magic on his clarinet in New Orleans. Upon learning that he was an instructor and director of the Jazz Institute at Southern University in Baton Rouge, I relocated and began my mentorship with Batiste. I studied classical flute and completed my music performance degree while I immersed myself in the world of jazz.
My journey to nursing
My maternal grandmother, my Mamaw, came to help my mom on the day my father died in June 1968, but she suffered a massive stroke one week after his death. So at age 13, I began my career as a nurse, spending my summer caring for Mamaw, first at the hospital and then at home. A retired nurse, she became my mentor when I returned in the fall of 1981 to care for her once more. At that time, I was a jazz musician who always had a day gig. I performed in clubs, restaurants and festivals, and I also held jobs at a record shop, restaurant and bookstore. But when my grandmother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, my jazz career was placed on the back burner.
I returned to my hometown of Thibodaux and began my nursing studies at Nicholls State University. I rented rooms in my family home to three students in my nursing class. We were my grandmother’s caregivers and her students. Whenever she had bad days, we would have her sing the hymns she had selected for her funeral. The music always gave her a lift. She passed away during our second semester, but she taught us volumes about caring for a dying patient and bore testimony to the power of music.
My initial plan was to become a home health nurse, and I always traveled with my flute or sax and treated my homebound patients to a song or two. One of these patients gave me the title “jazz nurse,” and it has stayed with me.
Although initially drawn to home health, I only worked in the field for a year. In 1984, I returned to college to complete my BSN, took a full-time labor and delivery position in Thibodaux and continued performing music. For the past 30-plus years, my focus has been maternal-child nursing. I have always incorporated music and laughter into my nursing practice — whether in L&D, high-risk OB or the NICU — and I always encourage nurses to use music in their own practice.
The healing art of music
Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge where I work boasts an Arts in Medicine program that benefits staff, patients and visitors. The mission of the healing arts program is to provide opportunities for everyone to experience the arts. Although our program is only a few years old and relies predominantly on volunteers, it has made a significant impact. Armed with the evidence that art heals, the hospital offers painting, journaling and other arts activities for patients and provides classes for the staff and visitors from the community.
As a member of the healing arts committee, I serve as coordinator for a series of monthly roving concerts featuring local musicians. As the name implies, the performer roams throughout the hospital offering musical interludes anywhere a group of people may be gathered. The concerts are designed to treat patients, visitors and staff to an uplifting musical moment. The positive evaluations reaffirm our belief in the value of these concerts.
Music can have a significant impact; I witnessed it in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. Baton Rouge was a clearinghouse for victims evacuated from flooded homes in New Orleans. I volunteered at a temporary hospital as a nurse for two nights. The shell-shocked faces of patients indicated to me that these victims needed more than nursing care. With this in mind; I returned the following night armed with my flute, a bag of Mardi Gras beads, and reinforcements — my daughter.
After that, I had an open invitation to return to the shelter and play music. This shelter on the Louisiana State University campus and other shelters in Baton Rouge were open for several weeks as refugees of the storm were relocated. I visited them every day until they were all closed.
One of my fondest memories is that of an elderly woman whose two daughters had her convinced that she was hallucinating about hearing a flute. When I arrived at her cot and offered a song, she looked at her daughters with venom in her eyes and said, “I told you I heard a flute!”
Her son, Donald, a flautist in a military band in our nation’s capital, called me the next day. He was jubilant that I had shared music with his mother and expressed his deep gratitude.
In 2015, 10 years after Katrina, I visited Washington, D.C., and was treated to a tour of Mount Vernon. My husband and I were invited to place a wreath inside George Washington’s tomb, a special prayer ceremony was performed and then Donald and I played a beautiful duet of Amazing Grace. I’ll always treasure that memory.
As I look toward retirement, I plan to continue my journey as a jazz artist performing in nightclubs, at festivals and in schools. I have two self-produced CDs — “Do You Want to Be Healed?” and “Just What the Doctor Ordered.” I have toured with my band, The Jazz Nurse Prescription, and have performed in Brazil, France and Germany. I will share my gift of music as long as I am able. •
Photo: Betsy Braud Hodnett, BSN, RN. Photo by Don Kadair.
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