Being hospitalized can be a scary thing … especially for kids. A child’s ability to cope depends on so many factors, including age, the gravity of the diagnosis and support systems available to them. While several of those factors are unpredictable, kids at UC Davis Children’s Hospital can count on one thing, for sure. The Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department will be there to help.
One of many ways this department supports pediatric patients is by incorporating music therapy into their treatment. Music therapy is a recognized profession. However, many don’t understand the extent to which music can make a profound difference for hospitalized kids. Often, a music therapy session can look like a music performance or a sing along but it’s so much more. Sessions are planned specifically to meet the individual needs and goals of each patient.
Why music therapy?
Music therapy is an allied health profession, similar to occupational therapy and physical therapy, but is unique in that it uses music as the medium to help patients achieve goals. In the hospital setting, music therapists use music interventions to assist with pain management, help kids express themselves and socialize with others, and normalize the hospital environment. The science behind this approach is well documented and the creative, emotional and energizing impacts on health and wellbeing can be profound.
“Music has the ability to meet a patient exactly where they are in that moment,” said UC Davis Children’s Hospital music therapist, Tori Steeley. “While we are playing music together, we’re building a therapeutic relationship at the same time, allowing the patient to feel safe expressing themselves.”
Steeley’s journey to becoming a music therapist began when she sought to find a career that combined her skills in music performance, teaching and desire to serve her community. After completing a bachelor’s degree in music performance, Steeley completed the steps to become a board-certified music therapist.
Take Genesis Oliva, for example. A preemie in the NICU, she and her family had to return to UC Davis Children’s Hospital several years later via Life Flight when Oliva contracted a dangerous cellulitis infection which required multiple, painful surgeries. Oliva was terrified. So was her family. How do you help a two and a half year old reconcile what is happening to her? Music.
“When Genesis hears music, it ‘frees her spirit’ and she can forget, even if just for a few minutes, that she’s in the hospital. She smiles. She’s happy. She’s herself,” Adriana Oliva said.
But music as a distraction technique is just the tip of the iceberg. The therapeutic benefits of music are many and varied. For Genesis, this included playing the drums, her favorite instrument. This application of music therapy provides opportunities for children to release energy and emotions by actively playing instruments. For older patients or those who cannot leave their rooms, they can even play bedside.
“When patients find the rhythm and get in the groove, it can be very powerful,” said Steeley. “Improvising on an instrument is a pure form of self-expression.”
In addition to “jam sessions,” UC Davis Children’s Hospital offers keyboard, guitar and ukulele lessons which gives older pediatric patients a chance to experience these instruments and learn versions of classical music or pop songs. Familiar songs also are a connection to home, while surreptitiously giving children the opportunity to work on and continue to develop gross and fine motor skills in a fun setting.
A calming effect
As highly motivating as music can be, it can also have a calming and relaxing effect which can be helpful in pain management and stress reduction. It worked wonders for Genesis.
After each of her surgeries, Genesis experienced severe pain. This translated to fear of staff and anxiety about future procedures. On days where Genesis was in pain or feeling anxious, music therapy sessions began with active participation, allowing her to release those emotions. As the session progressed, the music shifted to slow and peaceful which allowed her to calm down and eventually fall asleep.
“Due to the familiarity of music for most children, it can help them feel safe and secure, when everything around them may feel chaotic,” said Steeley.
As remarkable as the immediate effects of music therapy are, the long-term benefits are equally meaningful. For Genesis, it meant better sleep in an environment that turns sleep schedules upside down. It also meant that with every subsequent surgery, this little girl had a better handle on her fear.
“With music intervention, Genesis was not scared the way she was at first,” said Adriana Oliva. “She knew where she needed to go and what had to be done. By the end, she was dancing into surgery.”
This is just one of many examples of what takes place at UC Davis Children’s Hospital every day. From accidents to illness, children face the unimaginable and it is terrifying; not only for them, but for their families. Music therapy provides a unique therapeutic experience in an intentional and developmentally appropriate manner to not only help the child heal their wounds, but heal their hearts and minds as well.