Joyce Brogan is a fighter, though the "instruments" she fights with are different than what you might imagine.

Soon after being admitted into hospice care, Brogan made a request that would strike some as unusual: She wanted to learn to play the ukulele. Yet it made perfect sense for this 79-year-old Rochester woman.

"I just like the sound of the ukulele," Brogan said of the happy-sounding, small, four-stringed guitar.

Brogan has a weak heart, and doctors have told her she could die at any time. For most, hospice conjures up the grim business of dying. For Brogan, who is not like most people, it presented her with an opportunity.

Brogan was 50 when she suffered a massive heart attack and underwent open heart surgery. She has battled back from heart-related ill health on four separate occasions. And each time, her inspiration to fight has been her three adult grandchildren.

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"I remember the first time I went down. Oh golly, I don’t know when it was. I just looked at the grandkids, and I said, ‘the fight is on,’" Brogan said in the kitchen of her Northwest Rochester home.

‘The greatest program’

When she entered the Mayo Clinic Hospiceprogram at the recommendation of her cardiologist, she knew the time was right, she said. She has been told by doctors that her heart operates at 14 percent capacity. She was at risk of falling. She could no longer clean and maintain her house like she once did.

Brogan has a feisty attitude. Instead of viewing hospice as a crutch to limp through the last chapter of her life, she saw it as a means to learn something new.

"I think people sometimes look at hospice the wrong way," Brogan said. "They’re actually there to help you with all your needs. I think it’s the greatest program I’ve been on."

Brogan’s experience also illustrates changing attitudes toward hospice. While most see it as a program that treats people at death’s door, that doesn’t encompass the entirety of its mission.

To be in hospice, a person needs to have been given a terminal diagnosis from a physician and a projected life expectancy of six months or less. Hospice is paid for through Medicare. But within that six-month time frame, hospice programs like Mayo Clinic’s prefer that people enroll earlier rather than later, said Amy Stelpflug, Mayo Clinic Hospice volunteer coordinator.

"We want to get people involved earlier, because then we can provide better symptom management," Stelpflug said. "We can get to know a person more and understand what their goals are."

‘Life is what you make it’

Brogan had been in hospice only a little while when she had her first music session with Brianna Larsen, a music therapist with Healing Rhythms Music Therapy. Larsen soon learned how deeply music was intertwined in Brogan’s life; that she was an accomplished musician; and that she had played the organ and piano since she was a little girl.

That’s also when Brogan told Larsen about her desire to play the ukulele. So the next time they met, Larsen brought one.

"She started fiddling around with it, and was already figuring things out the moment it was in her hands," Larsen said.

"Life is what you make it," Brogan said. "If you want to be sad, you’ll be sad. I don’t want to be sad."

Brogan, a lifelong Rochester resident, was 5 when she had her first piano lesson. Her music teacher was Maye Hain, a one-time silent movie piano player. Three years later, Hain told Brogan she had taught her everything she could.

Music was a family affair at Brogan’s childhood home. Her dad, Howard Hanson, played the guitar and the harmonica. Her older brothers, Donny and Neil Hanson, were also talented musicians and played in a band called the Starlighters, often performing at The Top of the Rock at the downtown Holiday Inn.

On weekends, the Hansen family would hold Saturday night barn dances. The living room would be cleared out, and aunts and uncles and their kids from around the area would join in. And the music and dancing would get so lively that the house would shake and tremble.

"It was a good life as a child," Brogan said. "We had a good time with family."

Ups and downs

But music was also associated with sad moments in Brogan’s life. When Brogan’s longtime music teacher, Hain, was old and ill at 91, Brogan would go to her house every night and fix her supper. One night, after Hain was done eating, Brogan asked her teacher a favor. Would she play a song on the piano?

Brogan helped this frail and wispy woman to the piano bench. And Hain played "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" as if she was in the prime of life. Brogan went into a nearby room and wept.

"I knew she hadn’t played in a long time. She had that ability," Brogan said.

To hear Brogan strum the ukulele or play the organ or listen to a music recording and watch her smile in response is to realize that the spirit of enjoyment is alive in her. For Brogan, music is not just a bunch of notes on a page but a force that enlivens and sustains her.

Brogan complains about her inability to turn her finger in such a way to make a chord on the ukulele.

"I"m going to wait until I can play something first and then I’ll go out and stand on the porch and strum that ukulele. Cost you a dollar a song," Brogan said.

One thing not in dispute is how much she looks forward to her music lessons.

"I love it. I’ll look at my schedule and say, ‘Oh, she’s coming today.’ And it just really makes my day," she said.