Three hearts beat as one
As Lizz Grams sat in a room at Spectrum Health Cancer Center awaiting an infusion, music therapist Erin Wegener opened her laptop and hit play.
First, Grams heard the sound of one heartbeat—her 1-year-old son, Griffin.
Then, her own heartbeat joined Griffin’s. Finally, there was a third heartbeat—her husband, Scott’s.
As the heartbeats thumped in unison, a guitar started strumming one of Grams’ favorite songs, “10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman.
It was the first time Grams had heard the heartbeat recording—a technique Wegener uses to set patients’ heartbeats to music to create a lifelong keepsake. Wegener, who works with adult patients, learned about the project from the music therapist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where they have been doing heartbeat recordings for more than a year.
Using a special stethoscope attached to a microphone, Wegener captures the heartbeat sounds. She plays her acoustic guitar and sings along with the rhythmic heartbeat, then uses her laptop to mix an audio track for the family to keep.
Grams was the first patient at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital to have a heartbeat recording made. And she’s grateful.
“This is something we can cherish and share with family,” said Grams, 31. “It’s very sentimental to us.”
Grams remembers the day this summer when Wegener recorded her family’s heartbeats. It was July 21, her son’s first birthday, as she went through an inpatient chemotherapy treatment at Butterworth Hospital.
“I was pretty bummed we were in the hospital for that day,” Grams said.
Grams has endured a lot in her son’s short life. On July 13, 2016, when she was 35 weeks pregnant, doctors diagnosed her with a very rare synovial sarcoma in her right foot.
She had spent years trying to find the correct diagnosis for her ongoing foot pain, which had become so bad she used crutches for most of her pregnancy. It turned out to be an aggressive tumor the size of a softball.
Just after her diagnosis, doctors induced labor, and on July 21, Griffin arrived. Doctors knew they could not save her foot, so three weeks after Griffin’s birth, they amputated her leg below the knee.
When she went in for her three-month scan, she received more bad news—spots on her lungs. A surgical biopsy in November showed that the same synovial sarcoma had spread to her lungs.
She started chemotherapy in January at Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
Grams’ treatment continues. This summer, she checked in to Butterworth Hospital for three, five-day rounds of inpatient chemotherapy. Another scan in August showed her lung tumors had shrunk, her spine and sacrum tumors had stabilized, and there was no new growth of cancer.
Because she wanted to be at home with her husband and son, she now undergoes outpatient chemotherapy every three weeks, for 7-8 hours at a time. She also has an infusion every six weeks to help strengthen her bones.
Grams said she will continue with the chemotherapy as long as it’s working. After that, they’re praying for a clinical trial.
Grams first met Wegener during one of her stays at Butterworth Hospital. Wegener played live music for her, to help Grams relax.
“It’s nice to hear music when you’re hearing the pump beat all day long,” Grams said. “It was a very nice break from the normal sounds you don’t want to hear.”
They also chatted about challenges.
“She let me talk about as much or as little as I wanted,” Grams said. “She wasn’t asking me all these questions, but she left the doorway open so I could talk about what I felt like talking about openly.”
As they sat together while Grams received her infusion, Wegener talked about their relationship.
“It has really been nice to spend time with Lizz. She’s a really bright light. Her family is amazing, too. Her son is so cute,” Wegener said. She turned to Grams and added, “You’re as strong as you can be. I feel so blessed to have met you.”
Grams wiped away tears.
“Erin always makes me cry,” Grams said. “In a good way.”
Grams said that even though she “can’t sing,” music has been a blessing to her on this journey.
“A lot of times when I have a lot of pain or I am sad, I turn to worship songs to help with that. No matter where I am, if I am in the car, or in the emergency room at 2 a.m.,” she said. “I sang after my amputation because of how much pain I was in. Pain meds can only do so much. Once you change your focus, it helps.”
On this day during her infusion, Wegener played for her again, singing the same song from the heartbeat recording: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, oh my soul. I worship your holy name,” she sang. “The sun comes up. It’s a new day dawning. It’s time to sing your song again. Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes.”
That’s one of Grams’ favorite lines in the song, which she said helps her focus on all she has to be grateful for.
“It shows that you can start over the next day,” she said. “You can start over no matter how hard it has been or how much pain you’re in.”
The music therapy program is funded through generous donations to the Spectrum Health Foundation. To refer an oncology patient for a heartbeat recording, please call 616.486.7007.