Harp Therapy

A retired RN puts her antique harp to good use.
Ruth Freedman not only enjoys playing the harp, she encourages members of her audience
to try sitting down at the instrument themselves.

Photo: RAE HUO

Ruth Freedman has traveled the globe. As a registered nurse, Freedman worked in the Hansen Leprosy Hospital in Jerusalem, as well as in the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai. “I’ve been at both sides of the world,” she laughs. Since her work on Molokai in the 1980s, Freedman has made Oahu her home, and while she no longer works as a nurse, she still frequents hospitals. Instead of providing medical care, she now soothes patients with the tranquilizing sounds of her harp.

“It has been very rewarding,” she says. “For a minute they forget about their pain. It reverses dire moments with a little distraction.” Since 2007, one Sunday a month, Freedman plays for patients and their families at Straub Clinic and Hospital. She wheels her ornately carved, antique harp—it’s more than 100 years old—around the hospital’s floors, starting at the emergency room, then on to the burn ward, the intensive care unit (ICU) and the surgical ICU, ending at the cafeteria.

“I’m very approachable,” she says, describing the way she sits on a Straub chair with a yellow sign reading “Harp Therapy” taped on the back. Freedman has been playing the harp for more than 25 years; she started in college when she was offered free lessons, and has since played it for friends, family and her former patients. “I’ve had it on a ship going place to place with me.”

She later took refuge in her harp while caring for her father, who had Alzheimer’s. She would frequently play to him and after his death started Harp Therapy. Freedman has a large repertoire of songs—including Hawaiian, Japanese and Filipino music, as well as classics and hymns. She even enjoys hearing others strum. “I put everybody on the harp,” she says. Many people, from Straub patients and children to local politicians and musicians such as Gov. George Ariyoshi and Jake Shimabukuro, have sat down at her harp.

When she isn’t playing at Straub, Freedman performs at other venues and events, and is on call with the University of Hawaii Symphony. Her next project? To get a stamp honoring Saint Damien created. It has already been designed and, knowing Freedman, it will probably be seen on the right hand corners of letters soon.

 The Best Medicine

You may not know how to play the harp, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lend a hand volunteering at a hospital. Here are some unique programs:

Queen’s Medical Center

Mobile Library: Twice a week, volunteers wheel a cartful of books and magazines to patients’ rooms for their reading enjoyment. “You’re free to take [books] with you,” says Beverly Parker, the manager of Queen’s Volunteer Programs, adding that the books are donated by hospital employees and the larger community.

Barber Shop: If you have a cosmetology license, you can participate in Queen’s Barber Shop. Hairdressers go to patients’ rooms and provide trims to women and men, and also work with patients who might be experiencing hair loss from chemotherapy.  

Call Queen’s Volunteer Services at 547-4397 to offer help.

Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children

Art While You Wait: Part of the national Art for Life Foundation, in this program, volunteers work with younger patients and their siblings to create crafts and artwork while the patient is waiting for or recovering from medical treatment.

Call 983-6333 to get involved.