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Kids go from cancer patients to rock stars

Monday, December 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Music therapist Tracie Heuring, right, helps 13 year-old Sickle Cell Anemia patient Terrell Donaldson write his very own "rock song" in St. Louis. Music therapy has become more prevalent in hospitals over the past decade as the medical community is more accepting of the idea that patients' emotional well-being is closely intertwined with their physical, therapists say.

ST. LOUIS — Music therapist Tracie Heuring first talks with the counselor about which kids she can visit. Many are too young, too weak or too angry today. They find one girl, however, who is eager.

Terriah Donaldson, 15, has been in the hospital a week. The H1N1 virus sent her sickle cell anemia into crisis mode, causing pain in her bones. Heuring dons a face mask and robe and walks in with a guitar slung over her back and a cart full of instruments.

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"Have you ever written a song before?" Heuring, 24, asks the teen, getting a shy head shake. "Well, we're just going to talk a little bit first about your sickness, about being in the hospital."

It was Heuring's second week traveling the floor at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, where children with cancer and blood disorders are treated. She is the certified music therapist for Kids Rock Cancer, a new program offered by Maryville University in Chesterfield that uses music to help sick children cope with not just their physical, but emotional pain.

It goes beyond listening to music. It's an interactive process where the children write and record their own song on a CD that is theirs to keep.

Based on the growing popularity of similar programs in other cities, Kids Rock Cancer helps combat feelings of uncertainty, helplessness and isolation. The process is not only a distraction from needles and medical tests, but also provides a safe environment to express themselves, a sense of accomplishment and joy.

Music therapy has become more prevalent in hospitals over the past decade as the medical community is more accepting of the idea that patients' emotional well-being is closely intertwined with their physical, therapists say. Studies show that music therapy can reduce stress, anxiety and pain. While the research is lacking on whether such therapy improves medical outcomes, doctors can see the power among their patients.

"Emotional and spiritual healing contributes to physical healing," said Karen Gauvain, pediatric oncologist at Cardinal Glennon. "Music therapy is creative way for our patients to express their thoughts and feelings and allow for healing of the whole person."

Heuring sits beside Terriah's bed and pulls out a notebook. "Do you remember when your were little, being sick?" she asks. Quietly, Terriah explains how she knew a long stay in the hospital was coming when her body got really cold and achy.

Heuring starts writing.

She can't sleep at night without her mom. During the day, when her family and friends visit, she said, "I feel my spirit getting lifted."

Heuring is struck by the words. "I think you just named your song," she says.

Kids Rock Cancer was inspired by a similar program, Purple Songs Can Fly, that started in 2006 in a converted recording studio at the Texas Children's Cancer Center in Houston.

Tom Eschen, Maryville's vice president of institutional advancement, read a story about the Texas program in the New York Times nearly two years ago. He was intrigued by the idea of replicating it through a university. When Eschen was hired six months later at Maryville, which offers a music therapy degree, it was the perfect opportunity.

A major contributor to music therapy programs across the nation is the foundation Rock Against Cancer. The organization has provided funding to start programs at 11 children's oncology hospitals since 2005. Hospitals have stepped in to continue funding after seeing the impact, said founder Lisa White.

"There is an increasing acceptance and value of music therapy in the hospital setting," she said.

Kids Rock Cancer received a grant from the organization as well as local donations to buy equipment and get Heuring started at Cardinal Glennon two days a week. Hopes are to get funding to expand to other hospitals and have small recording studios onsite, so children receiving outpatient treatments can record songs too, said program director Kristie Skor.

"We want to touch as many kids as possible," Skor said.

In Terriah's hospital room, Heuring pulls out her guitar and starts to sing her words: "On the outside I seem fine, but on the inside I feel low, but in my heart, I feel great, because I feel my spirit being lifted."

Terriah smiles. She barely notices as nurses adjust and re-tape the needle in her hand. "At night time, I feel sad and lonely," Heuring starts again. Terriah puts her pen to her lips, thinking hard about what she wants to say next, "How about, I remember my mom in my heart, or something?"

Just then Terriah's mom walks in the door. Terriah tells her to come back later.

Terriah says her mom always takes care of her and her two brothers. Her dad moved away when she was 6. Her mom brings her Captain D's, calls when she can't be there. She reads her the Bible. Her favorite is Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

Terriah closes her eyes as she thinks how to finish the verse about her mom. "When she's here, I know she protects me," she sings, "and that always makes me glad."

Heuring tells her, "That's a Grammy award-winner there."

The program, though, is not so much about the product.

"It's more about creative and expressive process rather than how it sounds in the end," Briggs explains. The software can add effects, but Heuring just uses her guitar. The kids can shake a bell or maraca. Their voices are not in perfect pitch, their words are unchanged.

After nearly two hours of creating and practicing, Heuring opens a laptop and plugs in a microphone. Terriah pulls it to her mouth and softly, but proudly, sings. Her 83-second song is now eternal.

While 80 percent of children with cancer survive, another 20 percent don't. For those, therapists realize, the CDs are ways parents can continue to listen to their children's voices.

Terriah's mom gets the OK to come listen. Tears fill her eyes as the CD plays and she hears the gratitude her daughter has never before expressed in words. She claps, tells her it was awesome.

Terriah asks for Captain D's, changing the subject. Can she have coleslaw, hush puppies, french fries, the battered and country-style fish and lemonade?

"Sure," her mom says. "You're a superstar."

You can find Terriah's song on the Kids Rock Cancer Web site.


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