Sun Sentinel

The Unsung: A music man for those on measured time

Hospice music therapist Tom Dalton soothes the dying

June 9, 2012, Michael Mayo, Sun Sentinel Columnist


Every day, Tom Dalton sings in the face of death.

"I look at it as an opportunity to bring joy to people," Dalton said.

Dalton is a hospice music therapist. He works with the dying and their families, using music to soothe and heal.

Sometimes he serenades patients with their favorite songs on his guitar. Sometimes he collaborates with patients to write original songs based on their life experiences, recording "life-review CDs" for their families. Sometimes he brings tambourines and maracas, so the sick can move and groove for a bit.

And sometimes he just sits, listening to the feelings and fears of those who don't have much time left.

"People allow me in at some of the most difficult and sensitive moments of their lives," said Dalton.

Many people shy away from disease and death in our society. And then there are those like Dalton, a calm, compassionate man whose job is comforting the afflicted. For that, I salute him as one of The Unsung, those ordinary folks who make South Florida a better place, and whose deeds I chronicle here from time to time.

Dalton who grew up in West Palm Beach and lives in Lake Worth, has been a music therapist for over 20 years. He began specializing in hospice work over 12 years ago. He has worked for VITAS Innovative Hospice Care for two years.

"It's a calling," said Dalton. "You do develop bonds with people and it's difficult when they go, but this work is tremendously gratifying."

Dalton works with patients of all ages, from kids stricken with cancer to the elderly suffering from dementia.

One time, he was called to a hospital room where a mother lay dying. The family requested "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess," which the mother sang to her daughter when they were younger. Dalton sang, "One of these mornings you're going to rise up singing, then you'll spread your wings and you'll take to the sky."

At that moment, the mother reached out, grasped her daughter's hand and took her last breath.

"It can be incredibly emotional work," Dalton said.

On the day I followed him, he brought his guitar to the small apartment of Frances Leddy, 92, who lives in a Plantation assisted living center.

Leddy has a terminal respiratory disease, and her husband of 70 years, Ed, died in February. She breathes with the help of oxygen tubes, her memory is spotty and she complains of constant pain.

She looked sad and uncomfortable when Dalton pulled up a stool next to her. They spoke about her husband, her children and grandchildren, and how she used to play golf. He asked if she wanted to sing along. "I can hardly breathe – I don't know if I can sing," Leddy said.

But after he serenaded her with "All of Me," she smiled and said, "That's one way to get rid of the pain."

And when he sang the Beatles' "Let It Be," Leddy melted back on the sofa with her eyes closed, looking completely at peace. "I wish I could have a concert like that every day," she said.

"I consider this job a privilege," Dalton told me. or 954-356-4508.




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