Healthy Choices

Steve Young donation gives music therapy a boost at Sutter Children’s Center

Elizabeth Feytser’s tiny pink toes tap ever so slightly to the tune of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” playing at her cribside in the Sutter Children’s Center ICU. The soothing timbre of music therapist Kathleen Humphries’ voice rolls over the hum of heart monitors and oxygen pulsers as the 6-month-old’s lips curve into a curious smile.

Recovering from heart surgery she had undergone last week, baby Elizabeth was the first stop of the day on Humphries’ music therapy circuit. The 26-year-old roams the hospital halls every day with a cart full of djembe drums, maracas and other donated and collected instruments in an attempt to bring comfort to children struggling with pain.

The music therapy program, which Sutter began offering consistently last July, received a $150,000 boost in August from former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, whose Forever Young Foundation aims to assist children facing physical, emotional and financial challenges in Northern California, Arizona, Utah and Ghana, Africa.

The entirety of the donation will go toward building Sophie’s Place, a state-of-the art music facility in Sutter’s new Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center, which is under construction across from Sutter General Hospital in midtown and scheduled to open in May 2015. The Sutter Memorial campus in East Sacramento will be torn down and used for neighborhood development.

At Sophie’s Place, children of all ages and ability levels will be able to sing, strum and slam in a group practice space, or reflect on music in a cozy “listening nook.” The 1,000-square-foot space will include a private music therapy room where Humphries can continue the one-on-one work she does now, and a recording studio where kids can capture music they’ve written or learned. Coordinators also hope to bring visiting talent into the space.

“You can imagine if One Republic comes in and has a song here, and our teenage kids get to see them up close and maybe record music with them,” said Dr. Azad Sheikh, medical director of the Children’s Center. “I can guarantee that hospital stay won’t be remembered for all the needles and the pricks that we give them. It will be remembered for what that music did for them.”

“It puts a positive light on the hospital experience,” Humphries added. “ It’s something to look forward to if they have to come back for their treatment.”

There is a growing body of medical research evidencing the benefits of music therapy, including increased cognitive function, muscle stimulation and reduced stress, which Sheikh said he sees in his own patients. Music also distracts patients from physical pain, which reduces the need for sedation. The less sedation a child receives, the sooner he or she generally leaves the hospital, Sheikh said.

Steve Young’s wife Barb has been researching the benefits of music therapy since the 1990s, when a close friend of hers fell into a coma. When the 17-year-old daughter of one of Steve’s friends, a Utah singer-songwriter named Sophie Barton, died in 2010, the couple decided to devote some resources to building Sophie’s Place in her memory.

Sutter’s Sophie’s Place will be the second to open nationally, after one launched last summer at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Barb Young called the partnership between Sutter and Sophie’s Place a “perfect marriage” between two groups who support the science of music therapy.

“You want to build a Sophie’s Place somewhere where they realize the importance of integrated health care,” she said. “They see the future, they’re committed to it, and they can make Sutter one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, potentially.”

At the end of her rounds last week, Humphries visited 16-year-old oncology patient Taylor Andrews, who was learning to play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” on the ukulele while receiving a round of chemotherapy. Andrews, who was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue cancer last year, said he looks forward to the music therapist’s visits each week.

Dana Andrews, Taylor’s mom, looked on with wet eyes as her son plucked out each chord and sang along with Humphries.

“The last six to eight months have been horrible, and he didn’t want to do anything or see anybody,” she said. “But he’s really taken to her.”

“She lets me play the songs I like, and she shows me the chords first,” Taylor said. “It’s fun to do and it takes up time instead of just laying here and watching TV.”