[This week’s music features explores the music therapy program, headed by Christy Merrell, at St. Louis’ renowned Children’s Hospital. Writer Jaime Lees had more on the subject to discuss than our print wordcount constraints would allow.]
I wrote the music feature this week, and in the eight or so years that I’ve been writing for the Riverfront Times, I don’t recall ever being so concerned with doing a good job on a piece.
The story explores the music therapy department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. It’s a topic that has been on my mind for a long time. And after I did some research and didn’t come across much information about the program, I decided to go find out about it for myself.
I have exactly one rule for the assignments that I accept: I only write them if I’d want to read them. And I’d definitely want to read this one.
Usually, my little rule expresses itself in fun ways– I’ll write something if I think I can make it entertaining or if I have a unique perspective to offer. But this feature was very serious. This was journalism. My dumb opinions or jokes wouldn’t be needed this time. In fact, they would only get in the way of the story.
On the day of the interview I put on my best music-writer-attempts-to-look-presentable outfit, tied back my wild lioness hair, packed up my micro cassette recorder and went to the hospital.
The woman at the heart of the story, Christy Merrell, does more than put her patients at ease; she put me at ease, too. She very obviously loves her work, but her self-deprecating humor while discussing such a serious topic was more than appreciated.
Because of space constraints, I wasn’t able to include many of Merrell’s spontaneously hilarious quotes. For example, when describing how she always seems to get along well with young boys, she said it’s because she lives by the policy that “farts are always funny.”
With her knowledge, experience and upbeat bedside manner, I got the feeling that this is exactly the kind of person you’d want around if your kid was sick. Kids seem to think highly of her, too. The boy mentioned at the end of the story, Joe, came up again and again in conversation.
When the interview was over, Merrell showed me a video collage on her laptop that she had made of Joe. In the collection of clips, Joe is seen in various stages of sickness– sometimes chubby and vibrant, sometimes thin and thoughtful.
A few different times during the course of the video, Merrell seemed lost in her own memories, temporarily forgetting that I was sitting beside her as she stared at the computer screen, hand covering her half-smiling mouth, eyes wet with emotion.
The end of the video features Joe, the Beatles fanatic, wearing round hologram John Lennon glasses while sitting on his hospital bed. He sang an animated a capella version of “I Am the Walrus,” making various beatbox noises and throwing his hands up during the “Woo!”
That little video clip kind of changed me forever. In addition to (once again) renewing my faith in the Beatles, I suddenly understood the depth of the work in this program and how deeply rewarding it must be to help out sick and injured kids.
So, you see, sometimes I get to write the stories and sometimes the stories end up writing all over me. I’ll never again hear that song without thinking of that video, good people like Christy Merrell and an awesome kid named Joe that I was never lucky enough to meet.
If you’d like to donate to the music therapy department at Children’s Hospital, call 314-454-6178 or mail donations here:
Child Life, Music Therapy
St. Louis Children’s Hospital
1 Children’s Place
St. Louis, MO 63110
Healing Powers: Music therapy provides more than just entertainment for sick kids
by Jaime Lees
Thursday, Mar 28 2013
St. Louis Children’s Hospital is both a happy and a scary place. Nobody wants to be there, but everybody is trying as hard as they can to make the best of whatever bad situation they’re faced with. Bold art sprouts off of the walls, structures are painted in bright colors and all of the furniture is low and child-friendly. Fresh “Get well soon!” balloons spring up every twenty feet or so, straining proudly from bundles of decorative neon ribbons.
Though kids feel welcome here, it is clearly still a hospital. Bald kids in wheelchairs draw in the art room, and babies in tented incubators are pushed down the hallway, with worried parents trailing close behind. Their brows are furrowed, and their eyes are distant with worry.
As the music therapist at the hospital, Christy Merrell explores the innate connection between the human brain and music and exploits this natural relationship for the benefit of patients. On one level or another, we all understand the healing power of music. Music is an essential part of the human experience. Sad songs comfort us when we’re feeling down, and happy songs make good times better. And sometimes it feels like one song can change your whole life, either though perfect timing or symbolic meaning.
Merrell’s work at the hospital is a continuous source of positivity in the lives of sick and injured children. She, along with her professor at Maryville University, developed and proposed the program to Children’s Hospital while she was still in graduate school. Seven years later, her music-therapy program is highly successful, but owing to lack of funding, Merrell remains the only such therapist on staff.
Undeterred by limited resources, Merrell radiates enthusiasm for her job and proudly shows off her “Tune Wagon” as she explains her craft. The Tune Wagon is a wheeled metal cart, filled with all types of instruments: small drums, tiny keyboards, bells, shakers and a couple of guitars. She has modified some of these tools for her patients with poor fine motor skills, adding velcro hand straps to drum mallets to make them easier to grasp.
We spoke with her in the hospital’s physical therapy room, and it was immediately easy to see why she does so well with patients: Her smiling face, bright eyes and sincere, easy nature are a welcome presence in a world full of machines, needles and confusion.
Jaime Lees:Tell me about music therapy.
Christy Merrell: Music therapy is the therapeutic use of music for non-musical goals. All of my goals are either psycho-social — if a kid is having a hard time coping within the hospital — or physical, like if they’re having a really hard time with endurance. So I do a lot of co-treatments with physical therapy, using music to help them learn how to walk again. We’ll look at their gait and see how we can make it more independent or how we can make it more functional using music. And slowly, once they get a more functional gait, we’ll pull that music away and see if the muscle memory sticks.
I’ve had kids that have come in for numerous neurological issues. Maybe they had a traumatic brain injury, or a stroke, or epilepsy, or a brain tumor, and they’ve lost some of their function, depending on where the tumor is in their brain. So I use music to help with not only endurance but with fine-motor skills. I’ll use guitar, or we’ll do scales with keyboards and pianos.
We’ll also do drumming to get them to a better range of motion—it just depends on which goal we’re looking at—and then I use music to help the patient achieve that goal.
How does music therapy help with memory?
We’ll often use music for memory recall. I’ve had kids that weren’t able to orient or tell you where they were. I’ll ask their parents or caregivers to tell me a song that they used to sing all of the time. Then I’ll play that song on my guitar or off of an iPod and sometimes they start singing — it’s almost automatic. You can see their face light up, and you can see that something is working in the brain, and then they’ll start singing. And it’s a really cool thing to witness. It’s the greatest job in the world, I think.
What is school for music therapy like?
I look at it as a triple major. You have a lot of psychology and family psychology. There’s a lot of classes on child development and working with kids with special needs or autism. That’s on top of your music theory, your private lessons.
When I started there were not a lot of music therapists that worked in a medical setting. And then here, I had to go through all the interviews and stuff, and then I basically started the program. I’ve been here for seven years now. It’s just me. But eventually we’ll probably add on as maybe we get more grant funding.
Is it a matter of resources?
Well, I think it’s a matter of finding people who want to donate to the hospital through our foundation. So it’s all done through donations from people that want to endow my program, or that want to give something back, which is really cool.
In a sense, the worst part of the job is losing patients. But cancer doesn’t define them. Or, the brain injury doesn’t define who they are. So I try to, just for that moment, allow them just to be a kid. And to give them choices. And to give them as much normalization to their day as I possibly can, and help them with those therapy goals, to get them to be more independent and to get them able to go home. And it’s really cool.
It’s awesome that I get to witness some of the amazing things that these kids do. Like, the progress. I love it. And progress can be defined in many different ways; it could be a kid that has a new diagnosis of neuroblastoma, or some type of cancer, or finally being able to say the word “cancer.” So I do a lot of songwriting with the kids, too. It’s a good way to get them to express themselves, and it gives them the feeling like they have ownership and control and power over something. And then they can start understanding and get into a better place of dealing with it.
Did you ever have any kids that found some musical talent that they didn’t know that they had previously?
Yeah, there have been quite a few. This one kid, Joe, came in — he had a form of Leukemia. We’d hang out, and I’d play my guitar, and we’d write songs and stuff. I got him really into the Beatles. And then he really started wanting to play his own. So his family went out and got him a guitar and he’d come in and say, “I heard this really great new band, Black Sabbath. Have you heard of them?” [Laughs] It was hilarious. He really wanted to learn some of those songs, so I taught him some basic chords. And the next time I saw him, he had it all. It was amazing. The kid had perfect pitch. And he could improv like nobody I’d ever seen before. So, he was awesome.
But, unfortunately, he passed away. And I played at his funeral. It was very emotional, but you do get attached to the kids. When I was putting together a memory collection for their family to play at the wake, I found this song he’d written where he was kind of telling all of us that he was going to be OK. So through music he was able to express himself, not only in the moment, but also in a deeper way.
Sometimes he would get really anxious, and ask, “Am I going to die today?” And I was like, “Well, it’s not likely, but someday, yeah. I’m going to die someday. It’s kind of the circle of life, buddy.” And he’d laugh and roll his eyes and say, “You’re so cheesy.”
I’ll never forget this: One day we were going for a procedure and they were going to give him some anesthesia. He asked the anesthesiologist what they were going to give him and when the anesthesiologist said Propofol, he started singing Michael Jackson! [Laughs]
I love this kid!
I know, right? He had a really good sense of humor. Very dry but brilliant. I would’ve really loved to see what he would’ve done with music, because I’m really sure he would’ve been amazing.
Donations for St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s music-therapy program may be sent to:
Child Life, Music Therapy
St. Louis Children’s Hospital
1 Children’s Place/St. Louis, MO 63110