When music therapist Carrie Lemen poked her head into Tyler Hughes’ room, he was ready to make music.
Tyler, 11, had been in SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital for more than three months, undergoing a heart transplant and recovery. He and Carrie had been working on writing and recording a song during his stay, and he had a new verse to add.
Using a stethoscope microphone plugged into an iPad, Carrie and Tyler had previously recorded the sound of his heart — both his old heart before the transplant and the new one after — to serve as the beat for the song before laying the vocals over.
“My name is Tyler, I’ve got a new heart. The old heart gone — I’m feeling so strong,” Tyler rapped.
Carrie is one of three full-time music therapists at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. As part of the Child Life team, Carrie and her colleagues, who are all board-certified in music therapy, offer a variety of musical options tailored to each patient’s wants and needs.
“It’s really patient-led. Here in the hospital, a lot of choices are taken away from them: You can’t say no to your medicine, you can’t say no to a doctor visiting, to IV pokes and things like that,” Carrie said. “But music therapy is something they can say yes or no to. And if they would like to participate, then we’re all about the choice and control, so it’s very patient-led from what music they like.”
Music therapy can benefit patients in a number of different ways, Carrie said. For some children, playing instruments and singing together might be a fun way to connect with their parents or siblings and make positive memories during their hospital stay. For others, it can be a way to work out complicated feelings that come with a diagnosis.
“Through the process of music, particularly with songwriting interventions or musical improvisation, a lot of times they’ll share feelings and thoughts they might not otherwise share, whether that’s how they’re really feeling in the moment, or something they’ve struggled with, or concerns they have for their family members,” Carrie said. “It creates a safe space for them to do those things.”
Carrie works with other members of the care team to help patients meet goals. If a patient is working in physical therapy to improve strength in their left hand, for example, Carrie might give the patient a drumstick to practice hitting a drum using that hand.
“I’ll say it’s a sneaky therapy because you get in and it looks like you’re just playing — it looks like we’re just making music or listening to a song, but it’s always so much more,” Carrie said.
Music therapy also helps patients focus on something besides pain. During procedures, like inserting an IV or a dressing change, which can cause a lot of anxiety, music can be a good distraction or even a way to keep a toddler’s hands busy.
“The more anxiety someone has about something, the more perceived pain there is likely to be, and the reverse is also true: Less anxiety experienced equals less perceived pain,” Carrie said.
Tyler’s mother, Tamara Walls, has seen this in action. “He loves music. Music is his go-to. It’s helped him get through blood draws and things like that, just taking his mind off things and really helping him get through those times,” she said. “It puts him in a place of peace.”
Throughout his time at Cardinal Glennon, besides recording his heartbeat rap, Tyler enjoyed trying out different small drums, singing along to music and even just listening to some of his favorite songs, most of which come from the “High School Musical” movie soundtracks.
“Musical memories tend to be very strong memories,” Carrie said. “So if there’s a certain song that a family has listened to at an important time of their life, that facilitates those conversations, and memory sharing can come out of that.”
If a family is religious, music can be a welcome connection to their faith or church community that they may be missing, Carrie said. She’ll ask if she can play a particular hymn that might bring comfort — a recent request from a patient was “Amazing Grace.”
Accompanying each patient and family in their particular situation is how Carrie tries to live out the SSM Health motto, “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.”
“Some of (the families) are having the worst days of their lives or the worst weeks, and so to be able to support them through music and use music to accomplish that mission, is a privilege,” she said.
On his 111th day in the hospital, Tyler was discharged from Cardinal Glennon to continue his recovery at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital. As he prepared for his “discharge parade,” a Cardinal Glennon tradition where staff line the halls to cheer as a patient walks out, Tyler picked out the perfect song to play: “Just Getting Started,” from High School Musical 3.
At the end of his last music therapy visit with Carrie, he shared his song selection with her.
“Life is coming, and I can’t wait,” he sang with a grin.
Music Therapy at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital
Music therapists use a variety of interventions tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Some of the most frequently used interventions include live music, playing instruments together, singalongs, songwriting and recording, music assisted relaxation, guided imagery, lyric analysis and the creation of legacy projects.
Board-certified music therapists are equipped with age-appropriate, musical instruments and recording tools/equipment, thanks to the generosity of the SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation. Patient visits take place at the bedside and family and caregivers are welcome to participate. Co-treatment with other hospital disciplines may sometimes take place when deemed appropriate.
To learn more, visit ssmhealth.com/cardinal-glennon/music-therapy.