Music therapists with St. Pete group offer melodic medicine to children in hospitals

TAMPA

With a guitar tucked under her arm, Jennifer Miller walks down hospital halls peeking into doorways to ask: "Would you like a music visit?"

Ten-year-old Lane Etheridge, lying in a big hospital bed at Shriners Hospitals for Children, next to the University of South Florida, says yes. He's waiting with his parents for surgery to remove a cyst from his leg.

"What's your favorite color?" Miller asks.

She gives him a blue maraca, asks if he plays any instruments — not yet, but he wants to play the piano and guitar — and then she strums and sings a Bob Marley tune.

"Don't worry about a thing, 'cause ev'ry little thing gonna be alright."

Lane shakes the instrument and wipes an escaping tear. As she plays, his toes start dancing under a fleece blanket dotted with paw prints.

He will be home in Plant City before he knows it, she tells him.

• • •

Not all of her patients are so lucky, says Miller, a professional music therapist. For instance, she plays for 5-year-olds who've had brittle bone disease since they were babies. For them, music therapy can ease the pain and help them heal.

Miller, 46, lives in New Tampa and works for Music Sweet Music, based in St. Petersburg. When Ted Wagner founded the nonprofit group nine years ago, some health care professionals viewed the musicians as a nuisance. Now the organization's three music therapists get more respect at Tampa Bay area hospitals.

Miller and Wagner put on medical masks before going into a room at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

She enters the room with no game plan, just a bunch of shakers, bells and whistles and one question: How can I help you?

Inside, 18-year-old Amber Boyles lies in a bed surrounded by a stuffed green turtle, musical printed pillows and a partly finished puzzle on her bedside table. She is waiting for a batch of chemotherapy.

"They were mixing it for the last two hours, so hopefully …" She grasps an imaginary spoon in both hands and pretends to stir a cauldron.

This is her second round and she's eager to get it over with.

The first time she brought her clarinet with her so she wouldn't fall behind her peers in band class.

"Music gets you through anything," she told Miller.

Experts say music therapy can distract patients from their worries and raises feel-good hormones like serotonin while reducing stress hormones like cortisol, Wagner said.

It can trigger memories and help patients express feelings. It can even help rewire a wounded brain, he said.

"As a therapist," Wagner said, "we're working toward something a little more than entertainment."

Miller plays the Beatles' Octopus's Garden for Amber. She has loved music since she was a little girl, which is why she started playing the piano, then the French horn, she told Amber.

But she soon grew tired of always being in a practice room and got a master's degree in music therapy from the University of Kansas. Today, she also works with children who have physical disabilities, autism and emotional wounds.

Amber says she started out with the violin, and then in middle school someone suggested she try the clarinet. She loved it.

She doesn't like leaving her home in Mulberry for treatments at the Tampa hospital. She has been here most of the past year, since she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She and two other teens with similar diagnoses became inseparable during that time, she said. Amber practiced her band songs while one girl danced and the other painted. They call one another "cancer sisters." They planned to go to New York City together this month to celebrate life.

But first, Amber has to get through a round of chemotherapy and maybe a bone marrow transplant from her younger brother, Alex.

In time, Miller moves on to the next room, where 18-month-old Joshua Cress sits in a high chair. He goes by "Maverick," says his mother, Courtney Cress, from Lakeland. Miller gives him a shaker.

"I've been working on the railroad …" she sings and plays.

Maverick's mother takes him out of the high chair and he reveals a stash of the maracas, in a rainbow of colors, he scored at Miller's last visit.

He was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks earlier and is fighting an infection, but his mood is sunny.

"You ain't nothing but a hound dog," Miller sings to him as he shakes his maracas enthusiastically.

He comes closer to Wagner and Miller and plucks at her guitar strings.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Music therapists with St. Pete group offer melodic medicine to children in hospitals 07/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 4:14pm]

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