by Joanne Faryon at

Steven Nelson had decided he wanted to be a nurse. He had spent his teens in trouble and his early 20s in prison. Finally, in his mid-30s, with a steady job as a receptionist in an urgent care and five kids to support, he believed he had found his calling.

Debra Bakerjian, an associate adjunct professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. She says the choice of music is key. Click here to listen(Megan Wood/inewsource)

Music could offer hope to people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and improve their quality of life.

Steven Nelson, left, singing to his grandmother on her birthday. Source: Hawkins family home video.
“He tried to get his life together,” said Gloria Hawkins, Steven’s mother.

The regret in her voice wells, as Hawkins recalls what had been the happiest moments of her son’s life, cut short by five bullets and a beating to the head at a San Diego nightclub in 2011.

Nelson, now 44, suffered a traumatic brain injury that was so severe he has been kept alive in a nursing home with breathing and feeding tubes for nearly seven years. He is unable to move his body, except for his left hand. He doesn’t speak.

But music may now be offering hope where there once was none, both in Nelson’s quality of life and in his ability to respond to the world around him.

Science has shown music has a way of invoking memory. It’s been used to help people suffering from dementia reconnect to themselves and to their environment. Now, researchers are trying to figure out whether music can be used as therapy for people once considered unreachable.

Nelson is one of 10 residents at the Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility participating in a $1.4 million statewide study that is exploring the connection between memory and music.

“There is neuroscientific evidence that music is very embedded deep in the brain … and linked to experiences,” said Debra Bakerjian, an associate adjunct professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at the University of California Davis.

Debra Bakerjian, an associate adjunct professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. She says the choice of music is key. Click here to listen. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

Researchers at UC Davis have partnered with the California Association of Health Facilities to determine whether music can replace antipsychotic drugs in nursing home patients who are prone to agitation and help improve their quality of life.

“We’re going to try to show an association between the use of the music program and whether or not it reduces their aggressive behavior. Whether they can come off from their antipsychotic medication, whether they’re at least using it less frequently,” Bakerjian said.

More than 4,500 men and women living in 300 California nursing homes are taking part in the study, aimed at residents with dementia. Those with traumatic brain injury can also display aggressive behavior, requiring medication and even restraints.

Nelson’s bed is kept low to the floor with a mat below because he has become so agitated he has fallen out of the bed three times. That made him a good candidate for the study, said Christopher Walker, Villa Coronado’s chief operating officer.

“We wanted to see, does it help? Can we use a non-pharmacological intervention to actually reduce some of these things (and) improve their quality of life?” Walker said.

On a Wednesday morning, Vanessa Radilla, an activities worker at the Coronado nursing home, placed headphones on Nelson and clipped an iPod the size of a matchbook onto his hospital gown. It was preloaded with some of his favorite songs and artists:“Stand by Me” and “Amazing Grace,” and 50 Cent and Eminem.

“You wanna listen to your iPod today?” Radilla asked. “Are you gonna dance?”

Nelson, with his mother at his bedside, nodded. He smiled. He lifted his head so the headphones could be adjusted. All of these seem like routine responses but not for Nelson. For him, they were like tiny miracles.

He was first diagnosed as being in a vegetative state as a result of his brain injury. While people in a vegetative state may appear awake and alert, medical experts say they are unaware of themselves or their environment.

inewsource first reported on this population in 2014 in a special series called An Impossible Choice. The stories exposed a largely hidden world of special nursing home units in California, in which more than 4,000 people are kept alive with breathing and feeding tubes.

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