Strums & Strides is an organization started by Nickolas Stukel, a current dual MD/MBA student at Georgetown University, to promote awareness of the healing power of music and raise money for hospitals’ music programs. In addition to being the founder of the organization, the Georgetown student is also one of the youngest people in the world to run a marathon on all seven continents. His most recent marathon was in Antarctica, and some of his other destinations include Thailand, Argentina and Germany.
Strums and Strides has also recently partnered with Musicians on Call, which has been around since 1999 and brings hope and healing to patients, to better accomplish its goals of raising awareness and promoting healing through music. And, with the combined efforts of the two organizations, Stukel has been able to make his dream of helping others a reality. I was able to speak with Stukel to discuss his amazing experience and journey.
Brianna Goff: What influenced you to start Strums & Strides?
Nickolas Stuke: My grandfather suffered from a severe stroke a couple of years before I started medical school, and although he suffers from permanent disabilities, I have always been amazed by how much his mood improves when he’s listening to me or others play music. This helped convince me that music can play an important role in healthcare, and so I started Strums & Strides during my first year of medical school as a way to bring attention to the role that music can play in the healing process. New research is continually reinforcing this idea, showing that music helps with everything from patient outlook and mood to decreased pain and healing times.
Strums & Strides is an intersection of three of my greatest passions: music, medicine and running. It is all about promoting the healing power of music, and working to improve hospital music programs through a partnership with the non-profit Musicians on Call.
BG: Tell me about your first marathon.
NS: I learned a lot of lessons the hard way on my first marathon. Because of school scheduling, I haven’t really had much flexibility in when I run any of the marathons—typically, I just find one that coincides with a break. The first one was during the summer between my first and second years of medical school in Thailand. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the weather in Thailand during June, until I got there and realized that the heat and humidity of Thai summers made D.C. summers look mild.
I had pretty much every problem a runner can have during that marathon: I rolled my ankle toward the beginning of the run, struggled to stay hydrated and fought through leg cramps during the second half of the race. But, running a marathon abroad was an incredible experience, and I met some amazing runners who gave me tips that I have carried with me across the world throughout the past five years.
BG: What has been the most challenging thing for you during your work on Strums and Strides?
NS: When I was starting Strums & Strides, I definitely underestimated the time and energy it took to build up something from scratch. The most challenging thing has been all of the little details I had never really thought about before—building and maintaining a website, along with finding creative ways to raise funds (benefit concerts, etc.) have been a couple of the more difficult things!
BG: What is the relationship between Strums & Strides and Musicians on Call?
NS: Being a full-time student, I recognized early on that I would not be able to make as large and lasting of an impact on the field of music and medicine as I wanted to if I worked on my own. So, I found an incredible non-profit organization—Musicians on Call—who have a team that spends all day, every day, working to bring musician volunteers into hospitals to play for patients across the country. I reached out to them with my idea about running marathons on all seven continents to raise money for the healing power of music, and asked if they would be willing to partner with me to help bring a more tangible effect to my efforts. They were thrilled, and we have been working together ever since.
Since then, I have raised over $9,000 for Musicians on Call, which has helped sponsor live music for eighteen hospital rooms across the country. I am also a regular musician volunteer with their children’s hospital program in D.C., and playing music for patients on a regular basis has been a very powerful motivator to keep moving forward.
BG: What was your first impression of Musicians on Call?
NS: When I was looking for non-profits to partner with, I was kind of surprised to find an organization as aligned with my mission as Musicians on Call. After reading about them online, and then talking with some of their leadership, I was incredibly impressed by their passion, their goals and what they had already accomplished. This past year, Musicians on Call passed the half-million mark: They have helped bring live music to the bedsides of over five hundred thousand patients. And I’m thrilled to be on that journey with them!
BG: What do you wish other people knew about Strums & Strides, and Musicians on Call?
NS: If I could, I would have every person experience the feeling of playing music for hospital patients. Seeing the immediate shift in the room environment from something cold and sterile, to something more relaxed and “normal,” and watching patients’ faces light up with excitement, is an incredible experience.
BG: What are some of your strongest beliefs about this cause?
NS: Through my experiences of combining music with medicine, both with my grandfather and now with kids at the children’s hospital, I have become convinced that music—and the arts in general—can play a powerful role in the healing process. As a medical student, I have come to appreciate the complexities of the human body, and learned that things like outlook and stress level can significantly impact health and healing times. Music can touch at these core aspects of ourselves and make a real impact in the hospital setting. As the research foundation for this concept continues to grow, I hope to see momentum build for this idea.
BG: What do you think will change about Strums & Strides over the next five years?
NS: Once I finish my seventh continent in Washington, D.C., in October 2017, I am definitely going to take a break from marathons for a while—my knees need it! However, I’m looking forward to continuing to work with Musicians on Call to bring music to patients’ bedsides across the country, hopefully expanding into more cities in the next five years.