Music therapy proves just the right medicine for 4-year-old girl born with congenital heart defect

UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital tailors program to the individual patient based on development, needs

Photo: Music therapists Bethany Pincus, left, Jenna Bollard and Julia Petrey-Juarez bring music to patients at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Walking through a hospital, you might expect to hear a variety of sounds – beeping machines, rolling wheels, the chatter of hospital staff. But if you were to walk past certain rooms at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, you might hear something a little more pleasant: voices singing.

Tamika LeBlanc, 44, was in one such room this past spring, where her 4-year-old daughter Olivia was participating in music therapy.

Olivia was born with a congenital heart defect and heterotaxy syndrome, and has been in and out of intensive medical care her whole life. Music therapy was first incorporated into her treatment just days after her birth, and LeBlanc has requested it ever since.

"From day one, we fell in love," LeBlanc says of her family's early experience with music therapy.

Jenna Bollard is a board-certified music therapist and Expressive Arts Therapies Manager at Mattel. She oversees the music therapy program, which operates under Chase Child Life.

The program is referral-based, Bollard says, and any pediatric patient is eligible for a consult.

"We might see someone to provide pain or agitation management, or maybe we're providing relaxing music to help someone fall asleep and reduce their stress and anxiety levels," Bollard says. "Another common referral we receive is for long-term hospitalization; the medical team will request music therapy in order to nurture the patient's social or cognitive development when there is a threat of regression due to the nature of the hospital environment, social isolation and medical trauma."

For children like Olivia, who have lengthy hospital stays, music therapy can address changing needs over time.

When Olivia was on life support in 2020, music therapists visited her bedside to sing and play guitar.

"I just know she heard them singing. I can't help but to think that maybe it comforted her, especially if she was in pain. I felt like the music helped," LeBlanc says.

And while music therapy is effective whether or not the patient is physically able to engage, LeBlanc says that Olivia's five-week hospital stay in May proved how significant participation can be.

"Those were the best sessions because Olivia wasn't bedridden, so she was able to be active. That took things to another level for her, for me — it was just so awesome," LeBlanc says.

"To see my child participate, and to not be in pain, and to be enjoying herself and laughing and smiling, that just brings joy to me."

Personalized care

"Our work is very family-centered care," says music therapist Bethany Pincus. (Photo by Josh Sudock/UCLA Health)

The music therapy team consists of Bollard, two part-time fellows on a yearlong rotation, and three interns who started at Mattel in September.

To determine a care plan, the team assesses each patient’s developmental stage and cognitive function. They also work to incorporate the needs of the patient's family into treatment.

"Music therapy doesn't just affect the kids. It's affecting everyone in the room, if they're willing to participate in the session," says Bethany Pincus, a board-certified music therapist and one of the program's fellows. "Our work is very family-centered care."

LeBlanc says though she likes to give Olivia her own space with the music therapists, she enjoys watching and participating as well.

"Yeah, maybe it's a nice time to take a break, but I enjoy it so much that I always stay during sessions," LeBlanc says. "The music therapists are always soft-spoken, they're always so creative, their voices are always insanely beautiful. Every single person we've encountered at UCLA has just been amazing."

Benefits of music therapy

Music therapy has a number of clinical benefits.

One major therapeutic value is stress reduction. In a pediatric medical setting, where many young patients experience fear and stress, agitation management is a crucial aspect of care.

Bollard says music is processed in every part of the brain. It can affect neurochemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin that soothe fight-or-flight responses, and is known to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.

"We process music in our hippocampus, our temporal lobe, our limbic system, our amygdala. It's one of the few things that can immediately impact the vagus nerve and immediately access our parasympathetic nervous system," Bollard says.

"No matter what you have going on, even if one part of the brain is tired or overworked or not functioning properly, there's always access to you through music. It always finds a way."

Varying approaches to music therapy

Bollard and her team combine multiple therapeutic modalities to treat patients.

"We're very well-rounded in the sense that we're not just one approach to music therapy. I think that is pretty unique. At other programs there might be one school of thought that the whole team follows, but here, it's quite a combination of existential therapy beliefs and cognitive behavioral therapy approaches," Bollard says.

Music therapist Jenna Bollard is Expressive Arts Therapies Manager at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. (Photo by Joshua Suddock/UCLA Health)

There are different options for treatment, depending on a patient's age, needs and ability,

For younger patients, live music and therapeutic instrument lessons can be useful methods of nonverbal expression. For older patients, activities such as lyric analysis and mood-based playlist curation are helpful tools for complex emotional processing.

Pincus says songwriting can also be a great tool for expression with older patients.

"I started songwriting with patients at my internships and found that I really loved doing it. I love working with teenagers and young adults, writing songs about empowerment and building strength and how they're gonna push through whatever they're going through right now," Pincus says.

"Even if it's just to say, 'This is not what I expected' — we're gonna write a song about it and sit with it. That's OK. Just having that result, like, 'Yes, I accomplished something, I wrote a song,' is really rewarding for the kids."

In addition to traditional musical interventions, the music therapy team can incorporate art, reiki, meditation and other supplemental treatments into their sessions.

Heartbeat recordings are another innovative treatment offered at Mattel.

Using the music therapy program's professional recording technology, therapists can record a patient's heartbeat and integrate it into a song as the percussive track. Patients and their families can take these songs home as MP3s.

After receiving a donor heart, Olivia's heartbeat was incorporated into a rewritten version of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely."

"They gave us a packet that asked us different questions to help create the song," LeBlanc recalls. "So it was ‘Isn't She Lovely,’ but it was our lyrics. We worked on it in the room, and then the therapist recorded the song and brought it back. So we have that now. You can hear Olivia's heartbeat under ‘Isn't She Lovely,’ and it's on cue."

LeBlanc says "Isn't She Lovely" has since become a recurring song in Olivia's treatment.

Lifelong skills

Whether patients learn a new instrument or take home MP3s from memory-making treatments, music therapy can affect lives far beyond the inpatient setting.

"I would say the goal for any sort of therapy would be to build coping skills that you can take with you outside of your session," Pincus says.

Mattel offers program participants a chance to take home instruments and equipment after their stay. Some patients receive ukuleles, while other patients, such as Olivia, receive microphones.

Now at home, music has become a central part of Olivia's life.

"Olivia likes to sing, and we do little talent shows for the family about three times a week. We listen to music daily," LeBlanc says.

Music therapy "works with the entire lifespan," Bollard says, and people of all ages can benefit from music-based treatments.

Learn more about Chase Child Life services and research.

Sophie Govert is the author of this article.

Additional resources

Expressive Arts Therapies Amazon wishlist

Music therapist’s 5 tips for using music to improve health

‘Virtual coffeehouse’ Zooms live music to patients and staff at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital

UCLA study on early parental stress and music therapy

Music therapy program at UCLA aims to help premature infants develop feeding skills