The healing power of music helping kids in hospital

Listening to live music can be very powerful and for sick and injured kids, it’s just what the doctor ordered. The music therapy program at HSC Winnipeg Children’s Hospital harnesses the healing power of music to help kids and families cope with life in hospital.

Cecilia Bellingham and Kirsten Blondal are part of the Child Life department at HSC Children’s Hospital, and they make up the music therapy team.

“Our primary goals are relaxation, distraction, and reducing anxiety but then our secondary goals are to help promote development while they’re here and help kids play through music,” says Cecilia.

Cecilia and Kirsten both spend one-on-one time with kids who need it most and also run group sessions so many patients get a chance to experience music therapy. The music therapists have had to adapt their sessions during the pandemic to include social distancing, safety precautions and infection control.

Music therapy comes in many different forms. For younger kids it might mean giving them a simple instrument like a shaker, so they can play along while Cecilia or Kirsten strums a guitar. Older children might learn how to play an instrument like the ukulele. The music therapy program also includes giving kids access to CD players and sound machines, so they can fill their environment with soothing sounds.

No matter how it’s delivered, music therapy always includes choice for patients, whether it’s what song they listen to, what instrument they play, or the decision to sit and listen instead of participating in a group session. This opportunity to make a choice is meaningful in an environment like the hospital where kids have control over so little.

“We try to plant the seed. We don’t force them to play or sing but we plant that seed to invite them to join in the music experience and if they choose to participate, it is always a better experience for everyone involved,” says Cecilia.

One patient who benefitted from music therapy is two-year-old James O’Neil who has acute lymphocytic leukemia and developed a serious inflammation of the intestines called typhlitis a few weeks into his chemotherapy.

“When James was starting to feel better from typhlitis, the music therapist came to sing with him and gave him a drum and shaker to play. We weren’t sure how he would react as he was just starting to get better but decided to try. James loved it. It was the first time he laughed, smiled, and even sat up in weeks. It was such an emotional, beautiful experience,” say James’s parents, Gillian and Eoghan O’Neil.

Both Cecilia and Kirsten are certified and have a degree in music therapy. They’re not only great musicians but have studied the clinical and developmental needs of kids facing life-threatening conditions, frequent pain, and chronic stress.

“As music therapists, we are able to use music to build therapeutic relationships and to promote healthy participation,” says Kirsten.

A big part of the focus in music therapy is giving kids a safe space to open up and be vulnerable. Music therapists need to be in tune with all the cues kids are providing to help direct the session.

“It’s pretty amazing. Even though we make a lot of music and sounds listening and silence can be very important as well in the hospital setting,” says Cecilia.

Both Cecilia and Kirsten feel fulfilled in their role as music therapists at HSC Children’s, and say there’s no place else they’d rather be.

“It’s a privilege to be able to inspire hope and to elicit smiles when sharing the love of music,” says Kirsten.

The music therapy program is entirely funded by donors to Children’s Hospital Foundation. You can help more kids like James, here.