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Songs calm Hospice patients’ journey

By Staff | Jan 1, 2020

Singing to hospice patients at Divine Providence Hospital, some members of the Gatehouse Singers include (left-right): Alex Nesbitt, Toby Steward, Chuck Johnson and director Aegina Leidhecker.

WILLIAMSPORT-Since 2008, volunteer vocalists have been singing at the Gatehouse located in the confines of Divine Providence Hospital in Williamsport. Certainly many patients county wide had spent their final hours there.

A description of the Gatehouse was aptly defined by Dr. Nesbitt, a family physician who decided to focus fully on hospice and palliative care. From portions of writings dated November 2005, the doctor penned: “In the wall that divides, this world from the next, and for each one who passes from ‘here over there’, there’s a time in the gatehouse, Just to be and prepare.”

Further on in the poem, Nesbitt wote, “Now I work in the gatehouse, I go help there each day. And I know, just for certain, that one day I will stay. It will be my turn then, one cot will be mine. And I wonder when that time comes, as I lie there and wait, Will the healer beside me, Feel at home by the gate?”

Three years later, in 2008, Tom Shellenberger established the Gatehouse Singers, inspired by the Hallowell Singers from Brattleboro, Vermont. Upon request, the local all-volunteer ensemble is available to sing through UPMC Susquehanna Hospice. Their repertoire includes sacred hymns, folksongs, spirituals, patriotic and secular standards.

The current director is Aegina Leidhecker, who, prior to retirement, taught elementary music at Loyalsock Township and at the Bloomsburg Area School District. For 35 years, she has been a flutist in the Williamsport area, performing with the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra since 1987. Following retirement, Leidhecker developed an Early Childhood Music Program with the Uptown Music Collective in the city.

Members of the Gatehouse singers give comfort by gathering at the bedsides of patients in the Hospice Unit at Divine Providence Hospital at Williamsport. Those included are (l-r): Lynell Whitnack, Judy Fischer, Beth Churchill, Pat Harenstine, Suzette Meyer, Janice Polchin, Donna Johnson, Judy Stauffer and Gerry Fausnaught.

The director meets for practice with the Gatehouse singers, about 40 in number, eight months annually. “When requests come in, we send eight singers to the patient, two each for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. When a singer is unable to come, I contact others on the list. Also, sometimes following practice, we go to the hospice floor and sing in the hallway.”

From soprano Gail Leidhecker, we learn that, “I’ve been with the singers for 11 years and was a part of the original organizers. This has truly been a ministry of love for all involved. It is a privilege to give in a small way to our patients at a very vulnerable time in their lives. We receive more back than what we give. The patient and families may sing with us; they may be in pain or restless but music seems to help calm them. Our singers may have never experienced being with the dying and may come out of a room teary-eyed but they can feel God’s blessing on the situation. It is a true ministry.” Further describing their activity, the soprano said, “We start with prayer before entering a room which gives us calmness and direction.”

Music contained in notebooks is given each vocalist. Included among favorite selections listed are “Jesus Loves Me; Simple Gifts; I still have Joy; I’ll Fly Away; Amazing Grace; Angels Hovering Around; How Could Anyone Ever Tell You; Danny Boy” and military songs for veterans.

The full ensemble gathers semi-annually during Hospice Memorial Services and annual Shirati events held a Divine Providence Hospital where they can be heard uplifting families with song.

An invitation extended by the director is to “Come join us, all are welcome. No try-outs, just your love, compassion and enthusiasm.”

To volunteer contact Director Aegina Leidhecker at aeginal1@comcast.net or Ashley Stensland, Volunteer and Bereavement Liaison with Susquehanna Home Care and Hospice at stenslandam@upmc.edu.