As a group of carolers paraded through the Nebraska Medical Center on Tuesday, 2-year-old John Yost waved and clapped and smiled so big the grin reached his eyes.
John is receiving chemotherapy for leukemia. Listening to a live rendition of “Jingle Bells” is more fun, though. He loves music, said his dad, Kirk Yost. So much so that it's part of John's treatment.
Twice a week during his stays, the toddler visits with Jessie Habluetzel, the lead caroler and board-certified music therapist at the medical center.
Music therapy is believed to have many benefits in hospitals, including reducing anxiety, building coping skills, boosting mood and helping younger patients reach developmental milestones.
Though Tuesday's caroling was a welcome distraction from pediatric patients' treatment, Habluetzel's one-on-one music therapy sessions are tailored to each youngster.
When Habluetzel meets with her kid clientele, a box of instruments in tow, she sings to them or they sing to her, or together they perform an impromptu duet. The children bang on drums or shake a maraca or fiddle with a keyboard, improving their fine motor skills. Sometimes they scribble a few lyrics onto a piece of paper, a way to express themselves.
“They don't have to be musicians,” Habluetzel said. “That's not what's important.”
The medical center introduced music therapy, a donor-funded program, to the hospital in 2009. Alegent Creighton Health hired a board-certified music therapist in 2010.
There are roughly 6,000 music therapists in the U.S., according to the American Music Therapy Association. Hospitals employ about 25 percent of them.
Though it's a niche practice, the profession has grown significantly in the past five years, according to Judy Simpson, a director of the association. She said the demand for professionals exceeds the supply.
Habluetzel, the only music therapist at the Nebraska Medical Center, sees between 15 and 20 patients a week. The nursing staff or early education development team typically refers the patients to her.
But sometimes a parent will spot Habluetzel in the hallway, carrying her guitar. “My kid loves music,” they'll tell her, and the music therapist will schedule a visit.
A particularly shy 5-year-old patient who works with Habluetzel learned to express herself through music. She fills in the words to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever Habluetzel strums her guitar but stops singing.
A 9-year-old wrote nearly a dozen songs with Habluetzel — one about his Make-A-Wish trip to Disneyland, another about marshmallows. The music normalized his hospital stay and helped him emotionally, she said.
Habluetzel spends time in the neonatal intensive care unit, too.
“They're not ready for all these beeping noises and sounds,” she said of her premature patients. “They should still be in the womb.” So she introduces them to sound while monitoring their responses, breathing and heart rates, careful to not overstimulate them.
A session usually lasts 30 minutes to an hour for the older kids and sometimes as little as 20 minutes for a little one.
The caroling on Tuesday lasted only a few minutes for each patient, but it was enough to cheer them up.
A little girl in pajamas bobbed her head to “Frosty the Snowman” as the singing volunteers, Habluetzel and pharmacy students walked by. A 4-year-old in a red tutu joined the musical parade, marching beneath paper snowflakes that hung from the ceiling.
And 2-year-old John smiled from his father's arms as the familiar sound of “Jingle Bells” echoed in the hallway.