Man in hospice care finds joy in weekly visits from harpist

Elaine and Hank Scherdin sing along
Elaine Scherdin, left, sits by her husband, Hank, inside their home in Winona, Minn., as they listen and sing along to Sister Mary Jo Baldus playing the harp. The harp is used as musical therapy to help the couple deal with Hank Scherdin's medical condition.
Chuck Miller | AP

Every Monday afternoon, Hank Scherdin's bedroom in a little house near Goodview becomes a place for music and laughter, for singing on key or off, and for a group of friends gathered as they have for more than 40 years.

Hank hasn't been out of his bed in eight years, but you wouldn't know it from his demeanor on Monday afternoons. He is quick to smile and joke, and gesture with his one good hand.

He's had multiple sclerosis for 24 years, diabetes for 20, prostate cancer for six, and other complications. He can't leave his bed, and he's receiving hospice care from Winona Health.

But he's always loved harp music, his wife Elaine said, even if he isn't much of a singer.

And so, at the recommendation of Winona Health hospice social worker Sheila Skeels about six months ago, the couple gets a visit from harpist Sister Mary Jo Baldus each week.

Sister Mary Jo Baldus
Sister Mary Jo Baldus plays the harp for Winona, Minn., resident Hank Scherdin as part of his hospice care.
Chuck Miller | AP

Baldus arrived at the Scherdin house around 2 p.m. on a recent Monday, carrying a green harp case. She left the case in the kitchen and went to the bedroom, where Hank and Elaine waited.

"Hey, Hank," Baldus said. "I brought my harp."

And not just her harp, but also music and lyrics for some of Hank's favorite songs.

Baldus invited two of the Scherdins' longtime friends, Leiha and Rollie Larson, to come sing along, and they've been regulars at the Scherdin home every week since, Elaine said.

"They came and had a good time, and it just continued on," she said.

For the Scherdins, hospice has lightened the burden of daily caregiving for Elaine, meaning she and Hank can have more time for themselves. They get daily visits from hospice aides, and other support staff check in periodically.

The couple married in 1960 in La Crosse and moved to Winona in 1964. A graduate of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Hank worked for a composite company, and together he and Elaine raised four children.

Now they have 10 grandchildren, and the whole family gathered in the small house last Christmas, at one point crowding around Hank's bed for a family photo.

Hank and Elaine have lived in the house — a single level with a finished basement — for 12 years. They moved so Hank would be able to get around easier, but his mobility has slowly decreased, meaning Elaine had to help more and more.

Elaine and Hank Scherdin listen to the harp
Elaine Scherdin, left, sits by her husband, Hank, who's in hospice care suffering from multiple sclerosis, diabetes and prostate cancer.
Chuck Miller | AP

"You just go day by day," Elaine told the Winona Daily News.

Monday afternoons are a bright spot in the week. The Larsons, friends of the Scherdins for more than 40 years, relish the time to catch up. Rollie was a member of the Winona Hims, so he harmonizes with Baldus while the rest hum or sing quietly.

"It's a good time for all of us to just get together," Elaine said. "It's so soothing or healing or relaxing — there's just something about it."

It's a time of smiling and gentle teasing, a time to catch up and, for a sweet half-hour, to fill the house with loving voices.

It's also a time for poking fun at any visitor who's not a fan of Wisconsin sports teams.

Hank is a big Badgers fan, and has a personal letter from University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez framed on his wall. He also has an ownership certificate for the Green Bay Packers.

Baldus settled herself into a chair near Hank's bed on her recent Monday visit and ran her fingers across the harp strings to warm up.

"Remember those piano lessons — this is just like the piano," she said.

Friends sing along
Elaine Scherdin, left, Leiah Larson, center, and Rollie Larson, right, visit with Hank Scherdin (not pictured) at his Winona, Minn., home. The Scherdins and Larsons have been friends for more than 40 years.
Chuck Miller | AP

Then she launched into "You are My Sunshine," with Rollie picking up the harmony.

Hank sang along, his eyes drawn out the window to a squirrel prancing in the yard.

After the upbeat "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "When the Saints Go Marching In," after the soothing "Going Home" and "Kumbaya," Baldus paused, laying the harp on her lap.

"Let's see, what other ones," she mused.

"Teeny Weeny," Hank said, cracking a grin.

Everybody laughed, as Baldus reached for the music in the manila folder she brought.

"The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" is a song she's loath to play — but she makes an exception for Hank. It's a secret.

"Nobody else gets this song," Elaine explained.

Baldus strummed the harp and began to sing, "She was afraid to come out of the locker ..."

Hank beamed from his bed.

After that, Baldus played "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" to balance out the session's content, bringing on another round of laughter.

The scene at the Scherdins' home is not one folks might typically associate with hospice care, but it's exactly what hospice is all about, Winona Health social worker Skeels said.

"When people think of hospice, they think of dying," she said.

The word hospice itself scares people. But in reality, Skeels' job is much more about empowering people to live the life they want, all the more so near the end, she said.

Hospice care is intended for the terminally ill and their families, but that doesn't mean death is the focus. Instead, the focus is the patient and the family, and it's a respite from the clinical decisions associated with illness.

"All of that gets to be secondary to your family," Skeels said. "I absolutely see it as about living well, and how do you bring joy to your life and to your family."

November is National Hospice Month, and Skeels said she and the rest of the department plan to celebrate.

It's true that they deal with loss and hard times, but they also deal in joy, in the perfect unforgettable moments that make up the best of life — in moments like the joking banter in Hank's bedroom. He may be confined to his bed, but he's able to give and receive joy from his friends every week.

"There's amazing people, like these two, that will always be our friends," Skeels said of the Scherdins. "This is just true to who they are."

When Baldus left the Scherdin home Monday, she promised to have "On, Wisconsin" rehearsed and ready for next time.

An AP Exchange feature by Marcia Ratliff, Winona Daily News.

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