Music and Healing
Kaydee Curbow had been quarantined for a month in her room at Seattle Children’s Hospital while battling leukemia. Day after day, she remained confined to the antiseptic quarters that smelled of alcohol and throbbed with the strangely soothing sound of an IV pump. The grind of hospitalization, preparations for radiation treatments, and the uncertainty of it all was overwhelming at times for an 11-year-old whose life was so much simpler just months earlier, centered on bike riding, shooting hoops and playing golf.
Some 60 miles away, near her hometown of Burlington, a local musician and others planned a benefit concert. But her friends faced a conundrum: How can we make Kaydee part of the concert so she knows we all care about her? Her supporters’ solution was very 21st century: They live-streamed the personalized show.
As a camera captured the concert action, including good wishes from family members and friends, Kaydee watched it all live on a laptop trained to Livestream.com. And for the first time in a long time, she smiled.
“It’s awesome to have someone shout out to you, I think. It makes you feel special,” says Kaydee, now 13, whose cancer is in remission following chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in December 2010.
Her mother, Patti Curbow, sat and watched her daughter through the entire concert. “The smile was priceless,” she says. “It was pretty amazing—just knowing that it was all just for her, and everybody was there supporting her and our family.”
When musician Levi Ware called the Curbows right after the August 2010 concert, he heard crying on the other end of the line. He immediately thought, Oh no, what have I done? “I felt like maybe they were sad because everybody was here and they couldn’t be here.” But no, they were tears of joy.
The Curbows’ reaction sparked an idea for Ware. After playing guitar and performing mostly in bars for some 20 years, he had come to feel that music was intended for something more meaningful. He had been searching for a higher purpose. So in 2010, he and his wife, Stephanie, started the Melodic Caring Project, composed of a network of musicians offering live concerts to hospitalized kids.
Here’s how it typically works: One or two artists play a cozy, live show in front of a small audience and occasionally yell something like, “Let’s give a shout-out for Kaydee” or offer other encouragement for one or more patients. The music typically is rock or indie rock played on, say, acoustic guitar or piano. The venues vary—in established restaurants and lounges around Seattle, in living-room-style environments where 30 or more audience members squeeze together in chairs or on the floor, or even in unlikely places such as a rooftop cottage atop a multistory brick building, as was the case last spring.
Through a live-chat window, the child’s friends and family members sitting at home or in the concert’s audience can type real-time messages of encouragement that appear on the Livestream screen. It’s free for the patient and hospital. In the first five months of this year, about 30 kids as far away as Nashville were honorees.
In Stephanie Ware’s dream, more and more musicians will take part and reach thousands of children. (View a past show without the chat feature at www.ustream.tv/recorded/24456878.) Levi says the project is “the perfect fit for anybody who feels like their music is intended for more than just entertainment.”
The Wares, who have two children of their own, ages 2 and 4, quit their regular jobs in January 2012 to throw themselves into the project, living on savings and fees from freelance work shooting wedding videos until they can attract grants, sufficient donations and corporate sponsorships to pay themselves.
They have found that patients often prefer the live-streamed concerts to having a live musician in their actual hospital room because they don’t necessarily want a stranger inside their comfort zone. Levi Ware says the Melodic Caring Project gives kids their personal space and anonymity while also making them feel a connection to people who care and to music.
“To me, there’s something miraculous about music. It really translates into any situation, any language,” he says.
Seattle Children’s music therapist David Knott agrees. “It’s a really great idea, and I think there’s a potential for real benefit for kids.”
On the December 2011 day of the Melodic Caring Project concert honoring him and two other patients, Braydon Hutchison felt so nauseous that his mother was sure he wouldn’t be able to watch. She was surprised when her 11-year-old son, quarantined in a Seattle Children’s Hospital room, suddenly improved at concert time, as if able to temporarily push his battle with leukemia out of his mind.
“I would say it was instant,” recalls Braydon’s mother, Renae Knowles. “Everything else around him seemed to stop. I started to cry, too—he just said that he was just happy that strangers do this. Just somebody that he doesn’t know, their compassion toward sick children, I think that’s what got him the most.”
Braydon actually started the live chat: “Braydon here from Children’s Hospital :)”
“Super excited to have you watching! Can’t wait to play for ya!!” Levi responded.
Later, Braydon wrote: “im learning to play the guitar. i love music,” and “I’m a fan for life and am gonna stay in contact with you guys.” Still later: “I’m rocking out in my room. So is my mom… and my grandma.”
Then another sick child joined in: “I’m dancing with my nurse in the room… actually two nurses.”
Braydon, a tough kid, hadn’t complained much about his leukemia or the treatments, his mom says, so it was unusual when he started to cry—tears of joy—halfway into the concert. “It really encouraged me to fight even harder,” he says.
The Wares have been heartened by their experiences, despite some bumps along the way. Some hospitals don’t have bandwidth sufficient for patients to view live-streamed shows, for instance. And Seattle Children’s Hospital has ceased acting as a liaison between patients and the project because of patient-privacy concerns and the potential that patients inadvertently may disclose private health information during the live-chat feature, says hospital music therapist Knott. (Parents anywhere can still request concerts on their own, however.)
Patti Curbow hopes the young project takes off, as she found it to be a needed comfort for her quarantined Kaydee and believes other kids would feel the same. “You’re stuck in there, and it’s the same thing day in and day out, and it’s negative. You do your best to stay positive, but it gets old really fast,” she says. “We really needed it at that time.”
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It doesn't take much to make someone smile.