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The benefits of music therapy: Antonio’s story

A typically happy and energetic Antonio began to feel isolated during an extended hospitalization. His music therapist Rebekah helped him feel more social, while providing “normalized” experiences for Antonio and his family.

At CHOC, music therapy is just one of the specialized therapeutic programs offered through the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department.

When Antonio was a baby, he was diagnosed with an immune system disorder called chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), which meant his white blood cells couldn’t properly fight bacteria and infections. He got sick more than other kids and took twice-daily medications, plus injections three times per week. Antonio was 9 years old when doctors determined he was a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant, so that his body could learn to make infection-fighting blood cells. His infant brother was a perfect match and served as his donor.

After a bone marrow transplant, the immune system is very weak, and patients are typically kept in isolation with limited visitors and other precautions in place in order to protect their fragile health. Antonio spent about six weeks in isolation.

At first, he was skeptical of music therapy, but he came around quickly.

“When I first went to Antonio’s room, he was playing video games in bed. He didn’t look at me or respond to me, so I told him I would simply tell his mom who I was and what music therapy was about, and he could listen if he wanted to,” Rebekah said. “By the time I sang the second line of his favorite song, he transitioned from lying in bed to sitting up, smiling and singing along with me. His mom played along with an avocado shaker, his infant siblings were both shaking maracas. The feel of the room had been transformed”

Since hospitalizations also impact siblings and parents deeply, Rebekah strives to include families in music therapy sessions whenever she can. After their initial session, Antonio was eager to engage in any musical experience that Rebekah suggested.

“In the middle of a long hospitalizations, there would be days Antonio was in a funk and the only thing he wanted to do was play video games,” his mom Maria said. “But when Rebekah came to his room, he would immediately turn off his video games, smile, happily get out of bed, and interact with her.”

At first glance, music therapy might look like simply singing or playing instruments, but the evidence-based work of a board-certified music therapist supports a patient’s clinical goals. In the medical setting these goals may range from promoting symptom management, like pain or nausea; increasing emotional expression related to diagnosis and hospitalization; or normalizing the hospital environment and promoting typical developmental milestones.

Antonio and Rebekah have a jam session in Seacrest Studios.

Some of Antonio’s goals for music therapy included decreasing isolation, increasing engagement in preferred activities, and managing stress and anxiety. Children who remain engaged with their environment typically respond to stress in a more positive way. By creating songs about Antonio’s favorite foods and hobbies, he can focus on the healthy aspects of himself—a reminder that he is more than his diagnosis, treatment or hospitalization. These goals were established to counteract the potential negative impacts that a prolonged isolation and hospitalization can bring.

Sessions were filled with creativity, laughter and smiles – from Antonio, his siblings and his mom. Some days, he and Rebekah wrote songs about Antonio’s favorite things.  Other days they wrote about his mom or favorite nurses. During music therapy, Antonio also frequently created original music through playing ukulele, drums and guitar. Since young patients often don’t get to make many decisions, they worked in opportunities for Antonio to feel autonomous and “direct” the other band members (his siblings and mom).

“Music therapy cheered up my son while he was in isolation,” Maria said. “It makes me happy that CHOC has things like this for kids when they can’t leave their rooms.”

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2 thoughts on “The benefits of music therapy: Antonio’s story”

  1. My son fought many hard days with Luekemia and when Eric the music therapist came into his room it’s like Cody would just feel better. Thank God for music therapy.

  2. Wonderful stories about music therapy. It would be wonderful if schools and all hospitals. Most people including school administrators don’t understand the power of music.
    Thanks for sharing how much you do for our children.

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