It’s not unusual to hear a song in the air at Craig Hospital.
Not the typical elevator music, either. The Englewood rehabilitation hospital for victims of severe brain and spinal cord injuries has a staff full of amateur and professional musicians.
"I really believe music is a healing process for people," said Brian Mahanke, administrator. "It helps them to relive memories, it creates atmosphere when they’re in a social situation. I see it as a really therapeutic healing tool. So I don’t think it’s uncommon that people who are dedicated to that purpose vocationally would have that gift set in their personality. Music is a great tool for communication and inspiration."
Mahanke finds musical inspiration in the realms of jazz and R&B. He plays trumpet, saxophone, flute and penny whistle on regular gigs with his rock/fusion cover band, Frontline. It’s a creative outlet that also allows Mahanke to earn some extra money.
Orderly Dan George plays a number of instruments and performs in a variety show called "Susie and the Manshe’s" with shows Friday and Saturday nights through Dec. 20 at the Lida Project, 21st and Stout Street. He joked that he got into the medical field because he wanted to do anything but work in a restaurant. Music keeps him young at heart, he said.
"I was 17. I bought a bass on Friday. I was in a band on Saturday. Now I’m 32. Nothing’s really changed," he laughed.
The number of creative and musically inclined staff at Craig is no surprise to George, given the nature of the hospital and rehabilitation in general.
"When people are usually at a hospital, they’re there for a few days or a few weeks. When people come here, they’re here for a few months. When you’re a musician, you have to be able to deal with touching people on a deep, emotional level. So when you’re here, just like when you’re playing a music show, you’re getting past the normal defenses people have," he said.
"By the time someone leaves here, they’ve had to deal with things they’ve never dealt with before, and they’ve had to break down and show you a place that they never want to show anybody," George said.
"I think it’s the same with music, too. When you’re playing music for people, you search for other places, where people haven’t experienced before. You’re pushing them into emotional places they haven’t gone. As a musician, you’re used to standing there and leading people into those places. I think it’s the same thing when you come here and you go to work. Instead of coming to work and dealing with a customer, you’re coming to work and dealing with somebody who can’t move."
"Craig really fosters that atmosphere of being creative and being yourself and stepping outside of your professional boundaries a little bit," said Brian Burne, director of occupational therapy. "That’s wonderful. That’s part of what makes Craig a special place."
Burne grew up in a musical family, taking piano lessons and learning guitar during his high school years.
"I was in a trio for a while, and picked up the banjo because I thought it was a cool instrument. I was starting to get into bluegrass music, and I became totally addicted to bluegrass," he said.
The genre has inspired him to add the bass and dobro, a guitar-like instrument, to his collection of instruments.
He plays all his instruments with the Missing String Band. Summer festivals, parties and weddings are all part of the band’s schedule. While Colorado is a great area to be a fan of bluegrass music, it’s not the easiest place to develop a working bluegrass band, Burne said.
"As far as the local bluegrass scene, it’s pretty tough. You can’t go to a place and rely on hearing a good bluegrass band unless you really search."
Guitarists Victor Towle and Dave Mellick illustrate the variety of musical involvement at Craig. Towle is working on recording his third album, while Mellick is a devoted recreational player.
Towle, outpatient case coordinator on the hospital’s brain injury team, is a singer/songwriter who’s been at it since age 10.
"I moved from the Chipmunks album straight into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So the Beatles have always been ‘Number one’ for me," he said.
He has self-produced all his albums and has recorded at Colorado’s Swallow Hill and FTM studios. He plays about 40 gigs a year and keeps fans updated on the Internet at www.victortowle.com.
"There are a lot of musically inclined people working here," he said. "There are some great singers, songwriters and instrumentalists."
Mellick grew up with music in his family and briefly majored in the trombone in college. Eventually, other interests took precedence over music, but he sticks to his acoustic guitar hobby during breaks from his job in Craig’s research department.
"Working in the research department is much different than a clinical department, but I’m afforded the opportunity and the time to take a long lunch and sit outside with my guitar and play, which I do regularly," Mellick said.
"It’s a lot of fun. Quite frankly, I just use music as an outlet to play. I don’t necessarily want to play for people, that’s not my drive. I just want to play," he said.
All the Craig musicians praised the work of colleagues Margie Shockley and Eileen McLaughlin, who team up every year to spearhead the hospital’s holiday music programs. During a time of year when both staff and patients would rather be elsewhere, the holiday programs foster a real sense of community and spirit.
Burne joined the holiday chorus during his first year at Craig.
"I was standing there during our actual presentation, singing with the choir, looking out at all the patients and their families sitting in the audience," he said.
"It clicked. I realized what it was really all about and what a phenomenal opportunity it was. How many places would put that much work into it and take that much time out for the patients that they serve?"
by Mike Liguori