Students, MD Anderson staff support music teacher through cancer treatment during COVID-19 pandemic

“You are not alone.” These are just a few of the kind words that Donya’ Easterly came home to find posted on her front door recently.

Donya’, a career music instructor and a colorectal cancer patient, has felt the growing anxieties about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) shared by many cancer patients. In addition to worrying about contracting the coronavirus, patients are adjusting to another change: having to go to appointments alone as hospitals like MD Anderson restrict visitors to protect patients from COVID-19.

Facing cancer treatment alone – with her students

“None of us expected to be sitting in these chemotherapy chairs or going through these scans alone,” says Donya’, who lives alone and now drives herself to her appointments. “It might look like we are going through this alone, but we’re actually all going through this together.”

The dozens of handwritten notes that her former students surprised her with on her door reaffirmed this for Donya’, who taught music for over 30 years before her cancer treatment began to significantly disrupt her teaching last year. While Donya’ has had to close her music studio, her past students and their families have become lifelong friends and a strong support system for her. They’ve driven her to chemotherapy over the years and are now bringing her groceries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The bond I have with these students is like no other, and their support lifts me up,” she says. “I know that no matter where I am or what I am going through, my students of the past 30 years will always be there for me because of the bond we have shared through music.”

Donya’ Easterly’s front door decorated with handwritten notes from her
former students.

Music brings comfort in unexpected places

Music has had a way of bringing her most of her life’s greatest blessings, says Donya’, who traveled the world with her three children as they performed in the international Broadway tour of The Sound of Music. And music has continued to play a role throughout her cancer treatment at MD Anderson.

“Music is my pain management,” says Donya’. Listening to music has helped distract her through the pains of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries.

When Donya’ went in for her first treatment alone at MD Anderson League City, she heard soft singing coming from the hallway. It was the voice of medical assistant Stacie Hunter. “Hearing Stacie singing meant so much to me that day,” says Donya’, whose anxiety lessened with each verse as she awaited the results of her scans.

“She was singing Precious Lord Take My Hand,” says Donya’, whose father is a minister and who maintains a strong faith. “Little things like that mean something.”

“I was walking down the hallway singing to myself when she heard me,” says Stacie, whom Donya’ later thanked for providing her much-needed comfort. The two women talked and bonded over their shared love of music, and that’s how Donya’ learned that Stacie sings in her church’s choir. Since then, Stacie has continued to offer a comforting presence for Donya’, singing to her and walking her to appointments.

“Those are the moments that, you know, just mean a lot,” says Donya’. Even when you may think you are on your own, there are connections to be made through acts of kindness, through technology and even through a song with a stranger, Donya' explains.

Finding virtual connection during COVID-19 pandemic

That's a message Donya’ is sharing with her students – virtually, for now.

“As long as I have breath, I will try to find ways to connect through music with my family, friends and former students,” she says.

Donya’ has been connecting with her students via video chat — something they had gotten used to before the pandemic, when Donya’s compromised immune system sometimes required her to teach online. That’s made it an easy transition during this period of social distancing.

“The hours that I've been able to spend with those students during the last two years of my cancer fight are the only hours that everything else goes away. There is no thought of cancer during those hours. There's no thought of COVID-19. It’s just the music and the students,” says Donya’. “We can’t be there for each other like we were before, but we are still together.”  

Learn about MD Anderson’s COVID-19 response and how you can show support.