“Call me Helen.”
That’s likely the opening words that University of Pennsylvania medical students will hear at their first day of class in Microbiology.
Dr. Helen Davies, 83, is a living legend for her brilliance, creativity, engagement in social issues as well as her personal warmth and compassion. She has won a staggering number of prestigious teaching awards including the 2006 Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award, Penn’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, was named fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was the first woman to receive the American Medical Student Association’s National Excellence in Teaching Award in 2001. As if all of her accomplishments are not amazing enough, she has developed a reputation for song.
Not any song. Helen develops special lyrics to popular tunes to help her students remember information they need to learn in their course of study. New lyrics attached to the Battle Hymn of the Republic will trigger facts about bacteria, carefully chosen words will keep memories fresh about leprosy sung to the tune of Yesterday by the Beatles, herpes facts will be sung to Sound of Silence, and congenital infections will be tuned to I Will Survive.
With her energy and passion, Helen continues to garner the dedication and respect from colleagues and students every day. Many students have returned to visit and, after years away, some can still remember those special songs that helped them succeed in remembering so many scientific details.
Singing is a special way of communicating. The words and the music in tandem are creative vehicles of expression. It also has a therapeutic healing effect that has been proven in many studies and is being aggressively studied by professionals in the medical field. It can reduce heart and respiratory rates and provide mental relaxation. Victor Sonnino, a neurosurgeon, can visualize how the melodic sound travels in the brain and has treated patients successfully with music. Passionate about opera which is the coupling of song and lyrics to convey a story, he is actively involved in promoting the value of music as a health tonic and an important part of the entire body wellness plan.
The Larks of Philadelphia is a group of 14 female singers between the ages of 50 and 70. Initially organized as a Junior League (JL) opportunity, it now encourages others to join who are not affiliated with JL. The women are dedicated and rehearse every week throughout the year, including summer. Their performances range from 2 half-hour back-to-back "cheer & carol" fests performed every Wednesday morning in December at area nursing homes, to longer programs of Jazz, Swing and Motown, and performed throughout the year. By joining with professional musicians for a concert at least once a year, they maintain a high level of musical excellence and perform madrigals and motets in addition to the modern foot-tapping rep.
Anjali Gallup-Diaz is the Musical Director of the Larks; she started singing with them in 2001 and became Director in 2003. She says, “While we certainly enjoy the heady experience of singing with pros for an alert and appreciative audience, the most rewarding moments of our performances often occur in Alzheimer-patient wards. When we belt out "All that Jazz" from the musical "Chicago" and I hear patients humming along, my heart soars. When we sing "Peace on Earth" - which we always do while holding hands with audience members - and an elderly resident, who hasn't spoken in weeks, mouths the words while staring into my eyes, my heart melts. There is no question in my mind that Music affords humans (and maybe our fellow animals, too) the surest and most direct means of communication. I live for those moments when people shed their inhibitions and break into song!”
Henry Van Dyke, writer, poet, essayist, said: “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”
--By Judith Zausner