In Los Angeles hospital, music and art help children cope

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There’s a change underway in some hospitals around the country where, increasingly, art is used as a tool for healing. 

At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, patients receiving art, music or dance therapy have more than tripled since 2010. Nearly 10,000 patients received such treatment in 2014, according to the hospital. 

Nicole Albers, a Children's Hospital art therapist, said it's amazing to work with patients and watch their pain disappear over the course of a therapy session. 

"It's meeting the patient's need," Albers said.

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The hospital uses grant funds to employ eight workers who staff the hospital's Expressive Arts and Therapies Department. Doctors and nurses can order up art therapy for patients just as they might prescribe medications. 

The department offers clinical and non-clinical services to help patients manage pain and other challenges with their illnesses. On the clinical side, therapists help patients build coping skills to manage their pain and moods. On the non-clinical side, patients can attend art workshops, watch theater performances and more.

On one recent Friday in the hospital's Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit, music therapist Tacy Pillow strummed a guitar and sang to a 3-month-old premie who recently underwent jaw surgery.

The baby's mom Araceli Viveros watched the session.

"It’s been really, really hard,” Viveros said. "It definitely makes me happy to know that he loves music and that it calms him and helps soothe him."

Pillow said the music allows the babies to better deal with pain.

"Music is always something that calms them. It can help calm them during routine procedures like a diaper change, or I’ve worked with higher medical staff even during, like, different surgeries," she said. 

Pillow has conducted research showing music creates positive physical changes in babies. In her study of 165 infants, 95 percent recorded lower heart rates after receiving music therapy, for example.

Her findings track other studies on the positive effects of music and other arts for palliative care, even for patients who are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or facing death.

Music therapy can also be a cost saver, according to Alexandra Field, manager of the arts and therapies department. Field said with music therapy, patients can leave the hospital up to 12 days earlier than other babies in the Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit.

Field said she wished the hospital had the budget to hire more dance, music and art therapists. If it did, she said they could use about 10 more therapists to meet the demand.

“We haven’t been able to grow in the way that we need to," she said. 

Nathalie Bilolo, 21, is one of Children's Hospital's patients. She has sickle cell anemia, which sends pain seeping through her bones. She said it feels like getting hit with a baseball bat.

Bilolo found painting and drawing have helped her cope.

"It just gets my mind off of it. Like the more focused I am, the more like pain is fading away," she said. "I’m telling the pain that, like, I’m the one that controls the pain and the pain doesn’t control me."

On the East Coast at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, there are similar programs.

Nineteen-year-old Cassandra Crowley learned how to edit a video documentary while undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. She also learned painting and worked with clay during her treatment.

"It was nice when people came in and taught me about things that I could use in the outside world and kind of give me like a reminder that eventually I would be in the outside world again," she said. 

Her 20-minute film captures her life as a teenager — a visit to the pizza parlor, scenes from cheerleading practice, and the grim realities like a tube known as a PICC line, that ran through Crowley's arm and into her chest. 

The college student is now in remission. She decided to pursue a degree in film and now sees herself as an artist, something she said she would have never discovered without cancer and her treatment.

"It gave me a lot of confidence when I didn’t feel like a lot," she said.


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