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Helping Children Heal

Photo of sheet music

Funding grows for music therapy outreach in Detroit.

One child wrote lyrics about what she would do when she got home from the hospital. Another composed a melody about missing her friends. Other young patients sang, strummed, laughed and smiled – a needed respite from their health woes.

Photo of a music therapist playing a guitar to a baby in the hospital.

An amazing thing music therapy does is comfort infants in surgery. Dr. Jody Stark helps with relaxation, maintaining vital status and more. As one RN stated, “Every time Jody comes, the patient and mom relax, and the procedure goes more smoothly.”

Since 2017, this has been the scene every day when kids at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, part of the Detroit Medical Center, are visited by music therapists from MSU’s Community Music School – Detroit (CMS-D). Bedside music therapy services and group sessions for children and families served by the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Child Life department are provided by two board-certified therapists funded by a grant through The Children’s Foundation. The success of this program has led to increased support for music therapy for children undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses.

Music Therapists Dr. Jody Stark and Erica Cyrul from CMS-D see patients throughout the hospital. Some are in neonatal care and pediatric intensive care. Some are in rehabilitation. Many are on inpatient units receiving treatments for burns and cancer.

Dr. Stark, who earned her Ph.D. from the College of Music in 2012, coordinates the hospital program as the CMS-D site director of music therapy clinical services. She and Cyrul share a caseload of 20-25 patients each week with sessions individually tailored to support pain management, relaxation, emotional expression, normalization, socialization, and distraction for patients and families.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is working with patients and their families and normalizing the hospital environment during what might be the most frightening and stressful time of their lives,” said Dr. Stark. “We help children cope during painful medical procedures. We engage them in joyful and creative self-expression, and in turn, witness their resilience.”

Positive results, continued growth

Music therapist and young child smiling while in the hospital.

Music Therapist Erica Cyrul and a young patient at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, part of the Detroit Medical Center. Cyrul and Dr. Jody Stark provide music therapy through a partnership between CHM, The Children’s Foundation, and MSU CMS-D.

While initial funding covered 15 hours of therapy per week when the program began, The Children’s Foundation’s commitment has steadily grown to the current 23.5 hours per week. In total, the Foundation’s belief in the benefits music therapy provides children has led to improving the program’s size and scope to the tune of doubling the initial support to its current $70K level. Patient-wise, the most recent figures show that CMS-D provided interventions for a total of 329 patients and 10 siblings in 2019.

“Music therapy is proven to address anxiety, stress, developmental needs, discomfort and so much more for children. It particularly helps with emotional expression, which is essential during times of illness or grief,” stated Lawrence J. Burns, President and CEO of The Children’s Foundation. “Our Foundation’s goal is to facilitate health and wellness, and while we may not always be able to prevent children from hospitalization, we can help them process, cope, and bring a sense of normalcy during their stay.”

For CMS-D, the program in Midtown Detroit reflects a key focus of the outreach unit of the MSU College of Music. Music has the ability to transform lives, Dr. Stark said, and music therapy is a standard of care in the nation’s leading children’s hospitals. Music can address physical, cognitive and social functioning for patients of all ages.

At Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Dr. Stark and Cyrul work with newborns through teens, including their families and siblings. She’s seen therapy clients speak their first words during music sessions, and engage with music after a painful medical procedure. She’s also seen the joy on the faces of parents and family members as they see their child open up, “get silly,” or sing their favorite song after experiencing trauma.

A music therapist singing to a young girl while playing guitar in the hospital.

Music Therapist and MSU College of Music alumna Dr. Jody Stark sees patients throughout Children’s Hospital, from neonatal care and pediatric intensive care to rehabilitation and those receiving treatments for burns and cancer.

“Music engages us—physically, cognitively and emotionally,” she said. “It’s happening in the ‘here-and-now’ and provides for non-verbal connection and expression. We measure success in patients’ immediate reduction of pain, stress and anxiety, as well as their increased positive coping, and improved physical and psychosocial functioning.”

Dr. Stark said that one of the most challenging aspects of being a music therapist is the ongoing need to increase awareness of the field. Music, she said, can be inherently therapeutic, and most people relate to how they use music to feel energized, relaxed, uplifted or entertained.

“Music therapists do so much more,” she said. “We’re credentialed clinicians. Physicians and nurses at hospitals understand this and frequently order music therapy for their patients.”

CMS-D director Jill Woodward said Stark and Cyrul provide an essential service that makes an enormous difference for children who are frightened or in pain.

“Using the power of music, the therapist can help ensure the success of the treatment by supporting the child both emotionally and physically,” she said. “They can help very young children remain calm at a time when they might not understand what is happening to them, and in some cases the hospital makes sure that particular treatments are scheduled only when child’s music therapist is available. I see our music therapists as true heroes on the front line of patient care.”

Integrating the care

Cyrul will mark her second year with CMS-D and the Children’s Hospital program in April. She relocated from Tennessee for the position, energized by the client-centered philosophy she saw at the CMS-D. She enjoys being part of an integrated team in the Child Life department, and sometimes works alongside a team of specialized therapists and providers in delivering care.

Music Therapist clapping her hands with a guitar in her lap.

Music therapist Erica Cyrul says she is energized by the client-centered philosophy at the CMS-D, and she enjoys being part of an integrated team in the Child Life department at The Children’s Hospital.

“The Child Life team at Children’s Hospital of Michigan is incredible,” she said. “There is so much support and caring, and the interdisciplinary approach of all staff ensures you’re providing the best through your particular service.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has limited some group activities Cyrul provided, personalized one-on-one sessions are ongoing with the proper personal protective equipment, sanitizing measures, and other protocols. Occasional recorded sessions delivered via closed circuit televisions have provided some creative solutions to maintaining the continuum of care.

“My hopes are the program continues to grow and that we can provide more coverage to patients,” she said. “Jody and I are continually working to educate people about the value of music therapy, and how we can be of support in patient care. I love what I do. It’s very rewarding.”

Rick Seguin via College of Music

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