Patients and their families at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and Rotary Flames House have been receiving a dosage of music during their hospital stays for the better part of a decade thanks to a therapy program that survives on private donations.

“Our mandate is about family centered care at the Alberta Children’s Hospital,” explains Sarah Van Peteghen, an accredited music therapist. “When we go into a room, we’re not only taking into account where the patient is on that day but also the parents, the siblings, everybody who surrounds them, because it’s a really stressful time.”

“They’re able to forget that they’re doing therapy when we’re engaging them through music,” said msuic therapist Marc Houde.

Van Peteghen, who says she has the greatest job, spends her days playing music alongside patients ranging from premature infants in need of relaxation to teenagers coping with extended medical stays or mental health issues.

“It’s nice for them to see a familiar face,” said Van Peteghen. “There’s a portion of life in hospital where you do see a lot of people coming through the door, doctors, nurses, residents, OT (occupational therapists), PT (physical therapists). It’s a massive staff that serves them here.”

The role of a musical therapist involves more than musicianship. Van Peteghen, who has been a part of the program since 2010, says therapists have to be able to adapt to the ever changing needs of the child and their family members.

“I think my most powerful moments have been when I’m meeting a family for the first time and really giving them space to grieve,” said Van Peteghen. “When they’re in a hospital it’s a very tense environment, they’re constantly filtering information about what’s happening.”

Van Peteghen recalls a memorable session with the parents of a baby who had been relocated from the neo-natal intensive care unit to a regular unit. Her lullaby version of 'What a wonderful world' had a stunning impact on the family.

“You could just see dad really start to breakdown and honestly grieve because it is a grieving process when your child goes into a hospital,” said Van Peteghen.

“Him feeling comfortable enough and feeling that release of music have an impact on his body and his emotions, that’s pretty rewarding work to have people let you into that space. It’s pretty humbling.”

Houde echoes the dramatic impact music can have on the children.

“Words are there to communicate certain types of things but sometimes the most meaningful communications are those little body gestures, simply the sounds that come from us as beings,” said Houde. “We try to tap into that more primal form of communication. It’s often the most authentic one to express how we’re feeling.”

March has been recognized as National Music Therapy Awareness Month. This year, the music therapy program at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, which is completely donor funded, will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

“We’re grateful every day to have those donors working and donating those dollars for us to be able to contribute and make better the lives of the families and patients,” said Van Peteghen.

For more information about, or to donate to, the music therapy program, visit Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation-Therapeutic Arts.