Should you find yourself lost while searching for the office of Julia Chabot, MDCM, at the St. Mary’s Hospital Center in Montreal, stop for a moment and listen for the melodious sounds of a trained operatic voice, then walk toward the source. “I don’t think about it much anymore, but my husband would say that I probably sing all the time, even if I don’t realize it,” says Dr. Chabot, Director of the McGill Geriatrics Residency Program and Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, McGill University.
From Diva to Doctor
St. Marys’ resident Diva started singing at the age of six and went on to take classes in vocal training. When she turned nine, she began to take her gift more seriously which led her to performing at concerts. At 12, she became a singer with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM). “I sang a lot pretty much until I started my clerkship in medical school, because then my schedule changed, and it was becoming much more difficult to set aside time to sing,” Dr. Chabot says. “It really feels like I had another life before I went into medicine.”
Dr. Chabot’s appreciation of music dominated throughout her earlier life, from being a season ticket holder for the OSM, to making major purchase decisions. “When I went to buy my first car, my first priority was a good music system. It was funny. The salesman couldn’t believe it! That’s just one example of how there is always music around in our house, all types of different music.”
It’s perhaps not surprising then, that in Dr. Chabot’s plunge into medicine, music would remain highly relevant. After medical school, she started her residency in internal medicine and eventually settled into geriatric medicine. “When I was a resident, I started to think that while we’re obviously trying to heal our patients, there are some limitations to what we can do in terms of medical treatment. That’s when I began to think about bringing music to work with me. I started to wonder if there was a way for me to actually improve the quality of life of my patients, especially working in the hospital setting.”
Music as Medicine
From a patient’s perspective, hospitalization is generally unpleasant. In addition to providing the appropriate care, Dr. Chabot began to take into consideration the patient’s predicament and in so doing, started to think of alternative forms of treatment. “We don’t have a magic happy pill that will suddenly cure people in this unfortunate situation. That’s why I started thinking about bringing music into the hospital.”
Her probe into music therapy began at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS), an institute dedicated to the neuroscientific study of music and auditory cognition, located in Montreal, jointly affiliated with McGill University and the Université de Montréal. “It occurred to me that there was a possibility for me to study exactly the question that I was wondering about, within a psychology program.”
Then, with a master’s in psychology in hand, Dr. Chabot proceeded to put her combined training to work. “In the geriatric unit of St. Mary’s Hospital, I created a program where musicians played for the patients every evening. Some of them were from McGill’s Schulich School of Music. We noticed incredible reactions from the patients. At this point I started to think, you know, while I’m doing medicine and prescribing all sorts of treatments, doing all sorts of tests, really trying to help our patients, I felt that by listening to one song and by creating a connection between the music and the patient, I could actually provide almost better care than I was delivering.”
Dr. Chabot proceeded to rigorously evaluate music’s impact on her patients. She concluded the exposure to music resulted in better health conditions. “There was a demonstration of improved positive emotion in our patients. Our research assistants analyzed videos taken of patients while listening to music. In addition to grading responses, we asked our patients how they felt, and both of those measures were correlating.”
Dr. Chabot’s combination of medical and psychological training represents a more holistic approach to patient care. “That’s the reason why I went into geriatric medicine. A lot of our patients have cognitive issues, so communication is a big challenge. It’s quite impressive to see how much we can use music to communicate with them. I have a dream that one day we will be able to prescribe music to patients in the hospital. There are definitely fewer side-effects compared to medication.”
From communicating through music Dr. Chabot has gone on to evaluate its effectiveness on insomnia. Her current research involves three groups of patients, one equipped with sleeping headbands that play music, another with headbands that play relaxation sounds, such as ocean waves and falling rain, and a control group. “We took measurements to see how well each group slept. We’ve just finished collecting the data and are currently analyzing it to see what the results show.”
Stepping up in crisis
While Dr. Chabot was exploring the health benefits of music, another challenge presented itself – COVID-19. In April 2020, in Dorval, 47 long-term patients at CHSLD Herron died from the disease. “We were all shocked with what we read in the newspapers about Herron,” recalled Dr. Chabot. “It was even more shocking because it was happening to patients that I’m trained to care for. I felt I would be able to help. One of the reasons I went into geriatrics is because it involves a vulnerable sector of the population, and we need to protect them. I really wanted to advocate for them.”
Hoping to be able to support efforts to contain the outbreak and to care for the afflicted, Dr. Chabot went to CHSLD Herron. What she didn’t expect was her help would be required for an extended period – three to four months. “We basically had to transform long-term residences into mini hospitals. I was coordinating a medical response in the residences, trying to train physicians who understandably were not entirely comfortable treating COVID patients. I remember one day there was a dermatologist, an obstetrician, and me, and we had 100 patients in a CHSLD and I was trying to coach them.”
Dr. Chabot eventually made it back to her office at St. Mary’s, where she can be found diligently analyzing research data from her latest geriatric study. If you’re lucky enough, you may even hear a few bars from Renée Fleming’s O mio babbino caro permeating the air.
This story originally appeared in the Department of Medicine Annual Report 2022-23. Read the full report.