A music therapist plays guitar with a young Levine Children’s Hospital patient.

Child Health | 3 years ago

Music, Composed to a Child’s Heartbeat

Music therapists help pediatric patients record special songs, just as unique as they are.

Each moment, we move to a nearly imperceptible soundtrack: our heartbeat, which is as unique to each of us as our fingerprints. If we’re healthy, we might not notice our heartbeat much. Our most important soundtrack is one that we take for granted.

The music therapists at Atrium Health Levine Children’s are changing that. They record music, composed to the rhythm of children’s hearts. Pediatric patients and their families can choose a favorite song – some even write their own. All of this is set to a very special percussion: a looped track of the child’s heartbeat. The result is something as unique as the child’s heartbeat itself.

For some families, the song becomes a souvenir of a challenge that a child overcame. For other families, the music becomes a cherished memento, honoring a child who didn’t come back home.

“Happy Tears” and a New Heart

Cole Griffin has always been aware of his heartbeat. He was born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which meant his heart beat hard – too hard – to keep up with the little boy. As hard as it beat, Cole’s heart still wasn’t strong enough. The skin under his fingernails and toenails was pale, as were his cheeks and lips. His heart couldn’t send his blood where it needed to go.

At age 12, Cole received a heart transplant at Levine Children’s. “I cried happy tears with my mom,” he says of the moment he learned the hospital found him a donor heart.

To celebrate, Levine Children’s music therapists offered to record the sound of his heartbeat, before and after the surgery. They brought in a special digital stethoscope to record it. Then, they imported the sound into a music recording app and began the process of fine tuning and looping his hard-working heartbeat sound. Cole had his transplant the next day.

“Afterward the transplant, I felt very different,” Cole says. “I felt like I could run a mile.”

His mom saw his pink cheeks, and she worried Cole had a fever. Then she realized: This is the face of a healthy child.

“Before, he was always tired. His heart was working so hard. Even when he slept, he never really rested,” says his mom, Laura Griffin. “Seeing him now, he wakes up happy. He’s happy all day. He’s energetic all day.”

After Cole’s transplant, music therapists recorded his new heart, too. The difference between the two recordings is stunning, showing Cole the difference between his first heart, with its hard, sluggish, irregular beat, and his new heart, which chugs along like a powerful train. It sounded so cool that he decided not to set it to a song; his heartbeat was music enough.

To his mom, the recordings are treasures.

“It’s amazing to have something we can listen to and know where we’ve come from and where we are now,” Laura says. “It shows the new life that we’ve been given through this transplant. There are no words to describe it.”

The Power of Music Therapy

Music therapists are board-certified providers who care for patients using music as a tool: listening to it, creating it, playing it. They hold an incredible array of skills, combining advanced clinical competence with musical knowledge. For instance, Gillian Zambor, MT-BC, one of the music therapists, plays piano, guitar, ukulele, violin and percussion, in addition to her skills in singing and songwriting.

They use music to work on individualized goals, like lowering pain and anxiety, boosting self-esteem and mood, and even building coping skills in patients of all ages. The results are supported by a mound of studies and evidence, but just as impressive are the effects that music therapists see each day.

“The minute we begin to play music, we can see heart rates lowering,” says Zambor. “We see patients who haven’t smiled in days, and they’re smiling for the first time.”

Zambor learned about the heartbeat project three years ago during a music therapy conference. Zambor brought the idea back to Levine Children’s, where her manager, Heather Silva, CCLS successfully won a grant from the Robbie Page Memorial Fund through the Sigma Sigma Sigma Sorority to purchase the equipment needed to bring the project to Charlotte. The project debuted here in November 2019, quickly becoming an important part of care.

“We want to approach pain, symptom management and emotional suffering from a multidisciplinary standpoint,” says Lisa Lam, CPNP-PC, a nurse practitioner with  Levine Children’s palliative care team. “We’re not just here to fix a broken bone or surgically repair a heart. We’re here to make sure that the family and the child are taken care of – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

The Role of Music in the Grieving Process

We surround ourselves with music during our important moments. It helps us celebrate milestones – weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. It helps us persevere through bad days and tough challenges. It also helps us grieve.

Zambor recalls a young patient who found peace through music. Through singing with the music therapists at Levine Children’s, the little girl lowered her pain and anxiety. Singing helped her express the difficult emotions and experiences that come with being a kid in a hospital. After the little girl died, the music therapists recorded some of her favorite songs as a gift for her family, who played the music at her wake. The music therapy sessions that helped the little girl cope with her sickness later helped her family cope with her loss.

“Music is very expressive. Music is around every celebration, whether it’s a celebration of life at the start or the end,” Zambor says. “It can play many roles during the grieving process, too. It can offer comfort through favorite songs that have happy memories. Families are able to have something that they can listen to whenever they need comfort.”

Another pediatric patient had an anoxic brain injury, which occurs after a complete lack of oxygen to the brain. He wasn’t able to move independently, but Zambor wanted to show his family that his body was creating music. She recorded his heartbeat with the digital stethoscope, and then his family chose a song to layer on top of it. It allowed the boy and his family to create music together, even while he laid still.

“Our bodies are so musical, and we can use these rhythms to create something really special and unique for families to keep,” Zambor says.

Preserving Memories, Relieving Suffering

The doctors and nurses see the difference that these recordings make for patients and families. They refer patients who could use additional support to the music therapists, and then witness the difference music therapy makes for the whole family.

“The job of palliative care is to help relieve suffering, and part of that job is taking the family into consideration and helping to relieve their suffering, too,” Lam says. “This can be the darkest time in a family’s life, and we want to do everything we can to help them make meaning out of it and to give them something.”

For some families, like the Griffins, the digital heartbeat project shows them how far they’ve come. For other families, it offers comfort in a time of unthinkable loss.

“The heartbeat project helps prolong memories,” Zambor says. “It means that part of the person will never fade because they’re captured in the recording forever.”

Learn more about music therapy at Levine Children’s Hospital, as well as the other special activities that we offer our smallest patients.