The rhythmic sound of a baby’s heart beat is already music to many ears, but the Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Child Life team wants to make sure that sound lives on through eternity, especially for those who only have a baby in their life for a short time.
Bridget Sova, the children’s hospital’s music therapist, records baby’s heartbeats and sets them to music.
What started as a memory-making technique for the families of terminally ill infants has become a keepsake for other patients and parents.
“This is a way for parents to always have that heartbeat sound,” Sova said.
Sova records the heartbeat on a specialized stethoscope recorder.
On this particular day, her subject is Levi Dekker, an infant who is recovering from heart surgery.
“This is kind of like a going away gift from the hospital and one of the ways we celebrate going home,” Sova said.
Levi is one of the lucky ones. He’s expected to make a full recovery. Sova said the heartbeat-to-music recordings take on an extra layer of meaning when the patient is nearing his or her final stanza.
“It can have a really big impact on families just to be able to have something tangible that they can remember their daughter, son, sister or brother,” Sova said. “Some people put it on their phone and listen to it every day. One family played it during their child’s funeral.”
Sova entered Levi’s room recently with audio stethoscope in hand.
Born on Sept. 1 with a heart condition—Tetralogy of Fallot in which his left pulmonary artery was partially detached and he had a hole between his right and left ventricle—Levi underwent open heart surgery at less than a month old.
His parents, Rachelle and Tony Dekker, said they would sometimes sing soothing music to their baby boy in the pediatric intensive care unit.
The family’s favorite tune? “Carolina” by Eric Church.
“It’s a song about going home and getting back to normal and that’s what we’re excited to do,” Anthony said, while rocking baby Levi back and forth in his arms.
Sova said baby Levi always “starts kicking his legs when he hears Eric Church,” so she deems it the perfect soundtrack to lay a heartbeat to.
Anthony cradled Levi as Sova placed the stethoscope against his chest, picking up the sound of his heart and recording the audio.
Back in her sun-filled children’s hospital music room, Sova removed background noise from the recording on her computer. She learned the recording technique from Brian Schreck, an Ohio music therapist, during an internship.
Surrounded by ukuleles, drums and xylophones, Sova delicately picked the notes to “Carolina” on her acoustic guitar, recording and mixing the track on her laptop with the rhythmic heartbeat track.
Her foot tapped as her fingers deftly worked the fretboard.
“I ease into the song and just play to the beat of the heart,” Sova explains as she finger-picked the melody.
Levi’s heartbeat recording includes the sound of blood flowing through his tiny heart. It sounds much like the Atlantic Ocean near the family’s beloved Carolinas, swishing surf gently to the shore.
Now home with their son, Rachelle said the family listens to the recording often. She said she’s thankful for the keepsake, and for the skills of congenital heart surgeon, Marcus Haw, MBBS, and the rest of the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital team.
“We are amazed at the capabilities of being able to record Levi’s heartbeat and to have it paired with my husband’s favorite song is even better,” Rachelle said. “Listening to the CD just reminds me of the experience we had. I think back to all of the caring staff at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and how they were like family for the almost two weeks we spent there.”
Rachelle said little Levi seems to enjoy the recording, too.
“Just as when he was in the hospital, he still loves music, but this was extra special,” Rachelle said. “I am looking forward to the day when we can play this for him and share with him how strong he really is.”
Although each family’s song is different, all are meaningful.
“The song can be a family favorite, or something the child loves,” Sova said. “Most of the time we use this as a memory-making technique. That’s the passion behind the project, for the families who are going through the hardest times.”