‘Aggressive Comfort’ for the Terminally Ill: Yelena Zatulovsky


Yelena Zatulovsky says she comes from a typical Soviet émigré background.

A native of Kiev, and part of a family that left Ukraine for Canada in the 1980s because of religious persecution, she was raised with culture. “Music was a big part; I loved music,” she says.

She came here in 2000 to study at New York University. And, she says, “I was always interested in doing something with people.”

Eventually, she discovered music therapy.

Today, as a creative arts therapist and clinical training program coordinator at Metropolitan Jewish Hospice & Palliative Care, she specializes in pediatric oncology and bereavement.

Her job? To bring comfort to the dying, including children, and their loves ones.

Her territory? Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

“There are neighborhoods you definitely do not want to go to, that I do,” she says.

Shlepping a guitar and other supplies on the subway, she visits patients’ homes, nursing homes and hospitals, encouraging people to suggest songs that reflect, and will improve, their moods. “I’m not just entertaining them,” she said.

She regularly does Jewish holiday celebrations with terminally ill individuals, including a few Passover seders. Her rounds include Holocaust survivors and veterans of the armed services. She tells of “breakthroughs,” with uncommunicative people expressing themselves in song.

Sometimes she sings in Russian. Sometimes wordless melodies are enough. That’s the beauty of music, Zatulovsky says. “I don’t have to know a language.”

Favorite destination, Iceland: Zatulovsky stopped in Reykjavik on the way to Paris several years ago, and has returned twice. “The warmth of the people is undeniable.”

One day, back to Ukraine: She was to visit relatives in her homeland this summer with her parents and Canadian-born siblings. But the uncertainty in Ukraine, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, forced the family to cancel their back-to-roots plans.