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Meet the singing nurse who helps heal patients with her voice

New York hospice nurse Kathleen Sarnes gives her patients a little extra healing treatment by singing to them.
/ Source: TODAY

Kathleen Sarnes is a nurse whose singing voice has become special medicine for patients in need.

Carson Daly received a first-hand look at Sarnes' healing power of song on TODAY Tuesday when he followed the hospice nurse for Visiting Nurse Service of New York as she traveled around Staten Island lifting patients' spirits with her voice.

"Music is something that really speaks to me as a person, and I kind of pass that along to my patients,'' she said.

One of her patients for the past nine months has been Billy Caputo, 72, a former World Wrestling Entertainment referee who loves hearing her sing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

"Nursing isn't just giving medications,'' said Sarnes, who has been a nurse for more than a decade. "You're catering to a person's mind, body, and spirit."

Caputo's daughter, Kate Miley, believes music has helped keep her father alive after they were afraid he wouldn't make it through last summer. His family has also noticed differences in his blood pressure and pain management under Sarnes' treatment.

"We got Kathleen for a reason,'' Miley said. "And I truly, truly believe ... that he wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her."

Sarnes' love of singing came from her grandmother, Verlene, who also had a beautiful voice.

"She looked at me and she said, 'I want you to remember one thing: The people you take care of, they weren't always sick, they were just like you,''' Sarnes said.

Studies suggest music can help reduce pain and curb anxiety for patients receiving hospice care. Last year, the National Institutes of Health awarded $20 million over five years to the Sound Health Initiative to explore the potential of music for treating a wide range of conditions resulting from neurological and other disorders.

"Physiologically, music can be very helpful in lowering the heart rate, (and) lowering blood pressure,'' Sarnes said. "It helps to build rapport with people, and if you have that rapport, they're going to be more likely to adhere to the plan of care that you give them."

Carson, who has been open about his struggles with an anxiety disorder, noted how music has helped with his condition. Sarnes says she has experienced a similar effect with her own anxiety.

"Music has been the one thing that has always been there for me,'' she said. "You have these thoughts that are racing and racing and racing, and music just slows the whole world down. When you're feeling anxious, it can just calm everything."

Ironically, the music Sarnes finds most calming isn't a genre normally known as soothing — heavy metal.

"Music that somebody might think is anxiety-inducing can quell the anxiety,'' she said.

She and Carson rocked out to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" as they drove around Staten Island.

"Sometimes it's not easy to get up in the morning and to get going and to go and see patients and everything,'' Sarnes said. "If you're nervous, you scream out some metal lyrics, you know? Whatever it takes. For them, you want to be a place of peace for them."

Seeing the reaction her singing gets in a patients makes Sarnes want to continue serenading them for as long as she can.

"When their face goes from (a frown), and then all of a sudden you get a big smile, how could you not want to do that for them?" she said.