I WAS IN THE PEDIATRIC INTENSIVE CARE UNIT at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA one morning last spring when I heard a young girl crying out. As the medical team huddled around her and spoke in hushed tones, her agitation and refusal to cooperate mounted. When the team stepped away, I approached and asked if I might help.
“Hi, my name is Vanya Green,” I said, introducing myself to the child’s parents. “I’m a music therapist with Child Life/Child Development Services. I work with kids in the hospital, and some find that music helps them to relax.” As I lifted my guitar out of its case, the little girl sat up in her bed and her eyes widened. She turned to her father and said something in Arabic, pointing to my guitar.
“Aisha loves music,” he said to me. “Can you play something nice for her?”
I began to strum a minor-to-major progression and sing “aman aman” to a Middle Eastern melody. I had studied Arabic and Sephardic melodies as a Fulbright fellow in Israel, and so I adapted the words, adding “Salaam. Hello.” Aisha watched me carefully, and then she began to sing.
FOR SEVERAL MONTHS I VISITED with Aisha as she waited for and then recovered from her transplant surgery. I worked with the medical team, social worker, child-life specialist and interpreter to help encourage her to comply with her care plan. Aisha responded well to boundaries and structure within the therapeutic environment created by music. She learned deep-breathing and vocal exercises, and she began to write songs with me. Toward the end of her stay in the hospital, Aisha expressed an interest in learning English songs. She would focus her large eyes on me and then Grace Notes By Vanya Green painstakingly repeat each syllable, smiling each time after forming the words.
The power of music to connect with people is more than anecdotal; research has demonstrated that the same parts of the brain associated with pleasurable experiences are affected when one listens to music. Music serves as a container for emotions that sometimes feel to be without limit. It helps create a boundary for feelings and gives meaning to them, and it offers a way to cut through the noise and stress of a hospital stay, to contribute in its own way to healing.
Aisha and I continued our visits. Soon, the two of us together were singing “A Whole New World.”
Written by Vanya Green. Vanya has been bringing music to the young patients at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA since 2007. She also is a performer and recording artist.Illustration by Phil Wheeler