NEWS | October 22, 2018

Music therapy helps UC Davis Children's Hospital patient through pain, fear of hospitalization


When Genesis Oliva contracted a dangerous cellulitis infection which required multiple, painful surgeries, she was terrified. So was her family.

Genesis Oliva
Patient Genesis Oliva benefited from music therapy during her hospitalization.

How do you help a two-and-a-half year old reconcile what is happening to her? Music.

“When Genesis hears music, it ‘frees her spirit’ and she can forget, even if just for a few minutes, that she’s in the hospital. She smiles. She’s happy. She’s herself,” said Adriana Oliva, Genesis’s mother, who believes that music therapy made a huge difference for her daughter.

UC Davis Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department has supported pediatric patients like Oliva by incorporating music therapy into their treatment. Music therapy can look like a music performance or a sing along but it’s so much more. Sessions are planned specifically to meet the individual needs and goals of each patient.

Oliva’s music therapy experience included playing the drums, her favorite instrument. This application of music therapy provides opportunities for children to release energy and emotions by actively playing instruments. For older patients or those who cannot leave their rooms, they can even play bedside.

Music can also have a calming and relaxing effect, which can be helpful in pain management and stress reduction.

After each of her surgeries, Genesis experienced severe pain. This translated to fear of staff and anxiety about future procedures. On days where Genesis was in pain or feeling anxious, music therapy sessions began with active participation, allowing her to release those emotions. As the session progressed, the music shifted to slow and peaceful, which allowed her to calm down and eventually fall asleep.

“Music has the ability to meet a patient exactly where they are in that moment,” said UC Davis Children’s Hospital music therapist, Tori Steeley. “While we are playing music together, we’re building a therapeutic relationship at the same time, allowing the patient to feel safe expressing themselves. Due to the familiarity of music for most children, it can help them feel safe and secure when everything around them may feel chaotic.”

As remarkable as music therapy’s immediate effects are, the long-term benefits are equally meaningful. For Oliva, it meant better sleep in an environment that turns sleep schedules upside down. It also meant that with every subsequent surgery, this little girl had a better handle on her fear.

“With music intervention, Genesis was not scared the way she was at first,” says Adriana Oliva. “She knew where she needed to go and what had to be done. By the end, she was dancing into surgery.”

Related links

The Medicine of the Mind - California Aggie

Music therapy for UC Davis Children's Hospital patients [video]

Music therapy [ABC10 video]

The healing power of music - University of California

Striking a chord - Comstock's Magazine