“The music lady is here!” exclaims Jeremiah Winter, a pediatric cancer patient at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“Guess what I brought today?” asks Music Therapist Bridget Sova. “The one you can play with your feet!”
Jeremiah, 6, holds the record for the most instruments played by one person at the same time (six), and likes to play the guitar with his feet.
The music therapy program is new at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and works to use music to help pediatric patients with anxiety and stress reduction, non-pharmacological management of pain, developmental stimulation and self-expression. Research shows that music therapy may have lasting benefits for young patients by relieving pain and reducing anxiety.
Studies show a dose of music therapy can result in physiological changes that include improved respiration, lowered blood pressure, improved cardiac output, reduced heart rate and relaxed muscle tension.
Envision therapeutic singing, songwriting, adapted guitar and piano lessons, music-assisted relaxation and recording projects. Some are upbeat and exciting while others are calm and relaxing. These are the basics of music therapy.
“It’s been fun walking around the hospital and carrying my instruments,” Sova says. “People aren’t used to seeing this just yet, so at first they will ask if I’m the entertainment. I enjoy explaining how music therapy works and how I’ll be engaging with patients. It’s much deeper that it seems up front, and I’m happy to be able to help get patients’ minds off the pain they might be in while helping ease anxiety of being in the hospital, too.”
Sova says when she enters a patient room with guitar in hand, it’s a great introduction to let patients know she is not someone who is going to be doing any pokes, but rather someone to help provide something fun.
Music crosses all barriers, including language, as is evidenced by Sova’s visit to Francois Hakizimana’s room. Francois and his family hail from the African nation of Burundi and speak Kinyarwanda.
Dressed in a cartoon hospital gown and wearing a blue-gray camouflage sweatshirt, the 5-year-old gently grasps the tambourine and sways to the “play along to the beat” song Sova strums on the wood guitar in her lap.
“Listen closely for the freeze,” she sings, anticipating a time when Francois will quickly cease playing the tambourine before picking up the beat again. “Good freeze!” she exclaims in praise as Francois did just that.
Next it was on to the drum, which he bangs loudly and with great enthusiasm before settling back into the white sheets of his bed.
Other kids are even more enthusiastic and shake their whole bodies to the rhythm of the songs. This is definitely true in Jeremiah’s case as he puts a drum on his head and shakes maracas with his feet while Sova pulls together an original tune at his bedside.
“Once there was a man named Mr. Drum Head. Mr. Drum Head had some shaky feet. And then there was a man named Mr. Drum Knees. He liked to play his drum all day long!” she sings as Jeremiah works diligently to play the boom whackers, shakers, a drum, a guitar and a tambourine shaped like a star all—at the same time.
“Shake it, shake it, shake it, Jeremiah! Twist and shout. You’re playin’ so good, you’re playin’ so fine … you’re doing just fine!”
“Oh … and your infusion is complete,” notes Sova as the IV next to his bed beeps and a nurse strolls in to handle finalizing the procedure.
“He has a ball every time she visits,” says Jeremiah’s Uncle Fred, who is spending the morning with him. “He learns to play new instruments and new ways to make music and sounds. This really does a great job of keeping his mind off the treatment.”
Erin Fredericks from Grand Ledge agrees. Her son Lucas has a rare form of childhood cancer known as neuroblastoma, and he looks forward to Sova’s visits very much.
“When Bridget visited for the first time, Lucas was just blown away. He sat right up and wanted to play every instrument,” Erin says. “The treatment he’s on right now is very hard and there is a lot of discomfort that goes along with it. When Bridget walks in, his entire face is full of excitement … as much as he can show at least.”
Lucas reclines and strums the ukulele with Sova. His dad is a musician and his family goes to a lot of concerts. Lucas idolizes his father and wants to become a musician when he grows up.
“This is such a cool program,” Erin continues. “I can’t even begin to explain the change this has made on my son. His entire body has changed since Bridget came along with music therapy and I can’t say thank you enough.”