Music Therapists Create Heartbeat Keepsakes For Grieving Families

”There’s something lovely in the families knowing that there’s still this one thing we can do.”

For our January 2015 Top Doctors issue, we talked with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Music Therapist Brian Schreck about hearing the music rooted in the human heartbeat:

“I’ve always been interested in the heartbeat—it’s what keeps us going. I record everything I do with everyone, audio and video. With a lot of chronically ill patients I found that by the time they got discharged, whether it was an earthly discharge or it was from the hospital and they got well, when I presented [the family] with sort of a “greatest hits” of everything that we had done together, it had a profound effect—it was kind of like seeing their kid again. They heard that laugh that they hadn’t heard in a while.

Then I shifted roles, working solely in intensive care. There are not many good moments in the ICU. As a music therapist I’m always looking for things that are successful to focus on: What is working right now? Your heart is beating very steadily. Especially in the cardiac ICU, they’re thinking about [the heart] all day long.

I saw this YouTube clip of a mother who had lost her teenager. The mom knew that the heart was transplanted, she found the recipient, and what was on this mother’s mind was I just want to hear my daughter’s heartbeat one more time. As soon as she got to the [recipient’s] house, the woman had a stethoscope ready, put it on the mom, and the look on the mom’s face…. It was like a light bulb. I was like: “We can do this tomorrow.” This is a way that I could actively create music with the tiniest baby all the way to someone my age and older.

There are these little lapel mics made for iPhones. The mic slides into the tube of a regular, disposable stethoscope. I invite the parents to come sit next to the patient, to have them actually put the stethoscope on their child. After I record it, I find the section of heartbeat that is the clearest and paste it into another track, and then I can loop it.

I play and record the music with my guitar, sometimes in the room, and then I mix the tracks. Sometimes it takes time to get the beat right, and that’s why the live music part of it is so important. It’s not just throwing the heartbeat in the back; this is actually the foundation of the whole experience.

We try to find songs that are meaningful. There was a great one that I did with a young family—I recorded mom’s heartbeat and she recorded her baby’s heartbeat, and then we recorded dad’s heartbeat, and mom and dad sandwiched their baby. So now their hearts are all together. There’s something lovely in the families knowing that there’s still this one thing we can do. It can help comfort them.” —as told to Lisa Murtha

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