Musical Healing

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Glenn Schifano is a music therapist - one of five thousand in the United States. He "performs" at Schneider Children's Hospital in Long Island and his audiences are children with life threatening diseases like cancer and heart disease.

He plays not for money, not for fame, but to heal and offer hope.

"It seeks to dispel some of the frustrating, suffering that goes on here," Schifano tells CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Dan Rather of his music.

"A child that really can non-verbalize some of their angst, some of their pain can really verbally, through music, express that," he says. "It can be very healing."

Schifano started his rounds on this day with 5-year-old Jake Brower, who less than two hours earlier had his 10th brain operation.

"To put the shaker in his hand and then to get him to shake on his own, I think it was empowering for him and also empowering for parent," Schifano says.

Baby Sekura is suffering from a head injury and Schifano is playing for both the baby and her father.

"You can just imagine dad feeling overwhelmingly anxious -- they both got into this kind of lull and that is the hope, what you wanna do. That's, you know, the baby to feel that the father is calm, the mother is calm, there is safety there, there is security there," Schifano explains.

When it comes to 18-year-old Ashley Crawford, who suffers from leukemia, Schifano doesn't have to figure out what music she needs.

She was spelling it out to me: 'I wanna learn 'Ode to Joy.' Teach me 'Ode to Joy.' If it was last thing she did on this planet that is what she wanted to do, that was it. Give her that joy," Schifano says.

For sick children well enough to live at home but still needing check ups, Schifano is the first person they meet in the hospital, even before their doctors

"Children come in, kids sign in, get blood drawn and go on to treatment area. That finger stick room dictates what happens that day," Schifano says.

If music therapy only makes treatment less painful and sickness more bearable, it would seem to be enough. But music therapy does more: it sometimes can save lives. Just ask Dr. Mark Atlas, who heads the hospital's transplant unit, where the survival rate for children is only 40 percent.
"The children in transplant tend to have difficulties with high blood pressure, both from medications and from pain. Relaxation, enjoyment, good positive mental state can help decrease blood pressure which actually improves their outcome," Atlas explains.

Music can sometimes improve the outcome even with the youngest of the young. Ashton Webster arrived a perilous 10 weeks early, weighing less than one and a half pounds

Up is bad; down is good in terms of the baby's breathing. The more Schifano sang, the more Ashton's mother and hospital staff could see "down."

All those differences were reason for hope said Dr. Dennis Davidson, chief of the neonatal unit.

"These small, premature babies while they are in their hospital stay can develop neurologically," Davidson claims. "The sucking reflex becomes better, they gain weight faster and ultimately they are out of the hospital faster."

Music therapy began not with children, but World Wart II soldiers suffering from battle-induced stress and trauma. Today music is medicine for all ages. At Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, a leading music therapy training center, nurses and aides often join in to help the elderly handle fear or depression.

Premature children hear whooshing sounds to sooth their too quick transition from their mother's womb to the real world.

Even the therapists handle their own stress with music.

Schifano knows that melodies can not forestall the finality of death. Despite all medical and musical efforts, he sees both the old and the young sometimes finally succumb.

"I try not to get concerned with that," Schifano says. "I try to keep in here and now, keep the child in here and now and be there for the family, musically and emotionally."