Singers belt out happy tunes for hospital patients

Charlotte Davis, Shirley Graham and Dona Dempsey volunteer their time singing to patients at UPMC Northwest. (By Natasha Brenneman)

The beeps of medical machines and the chatter of nurses and doctors at UMPC Northwest are drowned out by the joyful sound of music every Thursday.

A group of local volunteers gather to sing for hospital patients one day a week.

The group, called The Larkspurs, has been singing for 30 years. They started in June 1986 and originally sang for the oncology patients at the old Franklin Hospital. The hospital then added a rehabilitation unit, and the group sang there too.

The two departments moved to the Oil City Hospital, and so did the Larkspurs. They continued singing at both the Oil City and Franklin hospitals until UMPC Northwest opened in 2004.

Only one of the original members – Phyllis Toothman – is still singing today. She has been visiting patients once a week since the group started.

“I just love doing this,” said Toothman.

Toothman has visited hospitals to share her vocal gifts more than 1,500 times during her years as a Larkspur.

The group is made up of seven members today – Toothman, Charlotte Davis, Dona Dempsey, Shirley Graham, James Miller, Ed Roberts and Charles Bickel. All seven sing accompanied by Miller on guitar.

The group goes room to room visiting patients. They sing a mix of songs made popular by famous musicians and a few originals.

“We have a song called ‘Whatever’ and another one called ‘Anything’ because sometimes people tell us to play whatever,” Dempsey said.

“This helps us more than it helps them,” Dempsey added.

The group spends about two hours a week with patients. Each patient is greeted with smiles and warm wishes, and no patient who wants to hear a song is forgotten.

“It really makes me happy when I see someone singing along with us,” Bickel said.

The group is part of a large network of hospital volunteers. There are many opportunities for volunteers such as cuddling babies, music therapy, clerical duties and other tasks.

“The hospital always needs volunteers,” volunteer liaison Deb Gregory said.

Gregory said people shouldn’t feel discouraged by the lengthy application process to become a volunteer.

More information is available by calling Gregory at (814) 677-7144.