Music Therapy helps soothe, comfort patients

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Video by Kirk Murray.

At just 10 years old, little Pammie Quintero-Rodriguez has already spent much of her life in and out of University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. She’s had more than 13 surgeries, mostly for heart and lung ailments, and has been admitted several times with respiratory problems.

Many days she feels tired and prefers to sleep.

But that's not the case when Kirsten Nelson knocks on Pammie's door and walks into the room with a guitar slung over her shoulder, When Kirsten comes, Pammie gets to sing—and sometimes music is the only thing that makes her happy.

“Those are the most powerful days for me as a therapist, when I go in to see a patient and they’re really down, and then when the music starts you just see that spark,” Nelson says.

Nelson is a music therapist at UI Children’s Hospital, one of three board-certified music therapists at UI Hospitals and Clinics. Through her work, Nelson brings music to hospitalized children in a variety of ways, from singing and listening to music to writing songs and playing music games.

“As a music therapist I’m required to be functional on guitar, piano, and voice,” Nelson says. “So, we are live musicians first and foremost. I play a lot of guitar in my work because I find it works very well with what we’re doing.”

Research has shown there’s a correlation between music and pain management—something Nelson takes to heart. Most of the children she works with on an individual basis are facing long-term hospitalization and are usually chronically ill. She’s referred to the families either by the child’s medical team or a social worker, and plans her time with each child according to their need.

“They could be dealing with unresolved pain or anxiety, or maybe they’re isolated to their room and they just need something different in their environment,” Nelson says. “It’s amazing how adding the environment of music into their room brings a whole different feel to the room.”

Music therapy—for which therapists are college or university trained and later board certified—has been documented to help patients with a variety of conditions: cancer and respiratory disease; mobility limitations; pain management and anxiety; speech and language; and many others.

Though Nelson works specifically with children at UI Children’s Hospital, two other music therapists work with adult patients, including those needing palliative care and dealing with end-of-life issues.

Nelson is easily recognizable as she enters each floor of the Children’s hospital: pushing a cart full of instruments and “gadgets” and with a guitar slung over one shoulder, there’s no question she’s come to play some music.

Some of the things she may do with the younger patients and their families include:

  • Singing a lullaby or favorite song to build the bond between parent and infant
  • Using active music play to normalize the hospital for young children
  • Writing songs to help patients express feelings about illness and hospitalization
  • Teaching harmonica to promote deep breathing and pulmonary function
  • Playing soothing music to promote decreased heart and respiratory rates
  • Teaching music relaxation techniques to decrease pain and anxiety
  • Using familiar songs to provide comfort and support at end of life

Nelson says that even after 10 years at UI Children’s Hospital, she still finds herself surprised every now and then at the way patients and families use music to communicate.

“Sometimes you’ll see a message pass from one person to the next in a song, and you can just see that that’s something they would never be able to communicate in a spoken conversation,” she says. “Music can be very powerful that way.”