Guitars strummed and voices sang at an impromptu concert held at the MGH Francis H. Burr Proton Beam Therapy Center on Oct. 20. Led by pediatric patients Nathan and A.J., celebratory songs by artists such as Jason Mraz and 21 Pilots filled the waiting area. A.J. was finishing a long stretch of proton beam radiation in the Yawkey building and was set to return to his nearby hometown.
The pre-teens met when Nathan began a 6-week course of proton beam therapy for medulloblastoma, a fast-growing cancerous brain tumor. A.J. was also undergoing proton radiation treatment for another type of brain tumor. He became a mentor and guide for Nathan as the two became fast friends. They particularly bonded over a shared love of music and soon discovered MassGeneral Hospital for Children's music therapy program.
As a child, A.J. learned to play guitar, viola, recorder and saxophone at home and school. He turned to music with the help of music therapist Hannah Shefsky, MT-BC and music therapy intern Marisabelle Diaz as a means of stress relief, coping, and creative expression three times per week during appointments. Nathan also has a musical background, playing the trumpet and flute. At age 4, he was gifted a guitar, but hadn’t yet studied the instrument.
“The evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individual goals can be a powerful tool to support patients during treatment,” says Shefsky. “We’ve seen again and again how engaging in music can empower people, bring joy and laughter to a scary experience and provide an emotional and creative outlet.”
Music therapy sessions vary by each pediatric patient's interests and can include learning to play instruments, listening to music, or writing songs and recording them to share with friends and family. The boys focused their joint sessions with Shefsky and Diaz on mastering new and old instruments, improvising together and learning how to play their favorite songs. They even assisted the music therapists in playing nursery rhymes for the younger pediatric patients and siblings. As A.J.’s treatment came to its conclusion, the budding young musicians wanted to share their new skills.
“For A.J. and Nathan, it was clear from the beginning how much they both loved music – and how naturally musical they were. It was a joy to watch them rock out together, share ideas, and support and encourage each other from week to week. I’m so glad they got the chance to share their music in a way that not only empowered them but also brought so much joy to those around them,” says Shefsky.
Approximately 10 patients and their families were treated to the waiting room concert, including staff and each teen’s families. At the concert’s end, A.J. ceremoniously rang the ‘Good Luck Bell’ which hangs in the Center’s lobby under the inscription, ‘Ring this bell three times well, it’s toll will clearly say, my treatments are done. This course has run, and now I’m on my way.” Maura, A.J.’s mom, says “This is what he [A.J.] will remember from his experience at MGHfC, child life and music therapy programming. He won’t remember the radiation treatments and chemotherapy, but these memories will be a positive experience and overshadow the treatment.”