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Music Therapy Becoming a Major Healing Tool

  • Monday, December 12, 2011

Twice a week, Iris Bridwell travels from Eutawville to Trident Medical Center (TMC) in North Charleston, where she spends three hours receiving an infusion of magnesium, something her body has a hard time holding onto.

Without the treatments, 64-year-old Bridwell would be weak, fatigued and in pain. The reality that she must continue them for the rest of her life used to be difficult but no longer gets her down, at least not when she sees Claire Littlejohn, the hospital’s music therapist. When Littlejohn comes in with her guitar and starts to sing “Over the Rainbow” or another favorite, the music transforms Bridwell’s treatments into a joyful experience.

 “It makes everybody happy that way,” says Bridwell, who receives her treatments through Trident Cancer Center and notices the impact the music therapist has on the other patients there. “She seems to touch everyone, and especially the ones who feel like they have no hope. ”

Music therapy has received extra publicity lately as a result of its role in helping U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona learn to walk and talk as she recovers from being shot in the head in January. Yet Trident is one of only a few hospitals in South Carolina to provide a board certified music therapist for its patients.

Littlejohn interned at the hospital while getting her degree in music therapy, then took over the program two and a half years ago. She does more than simply play songs. She uses music as a tool to meet the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of patients, and adjusts her approach and the style of music on each situation. “It all depends on the person, and what they need in the moment,” she says.

During her regular visits to the hospital’s cancer center, she works with groups on self-expression, coping skills and relaxation techniques, while also offering a welcome diversion during treatments. Surveys she has taken indicate that her sessions reduce a patient’s pain by an average of 75 percent and anxiety by 73 percent.

Littlejohn also makes regular visits to the hospital’s special care nursery, where she helps premature infants adjust to the new world by providing them with positive stimulation. Otherwise, she takes her carts of songbooks and instruments throughout the hospital to work with patients on a mostly individual basis, as referred by Trident’s treatment teams.

She typically plays her guitar, but may bring her keyboard or drums. Her rain stick, helps with relaxation exercises, and the thunder tube is a hit with kids. “The symbol of a music therapist used to be an octopus with instruments in each hand,” she says. Patients are invited to join in the creative process by singing, playing or even songwriting.

When it’s the right moment, Littlejohn will take time with hospital staff as well.

“I sing a lot of songs about the beach and other places, which can help relax them or give them an upbeat boost.”
--Claire Littlejohn, Music Therapist, Trident Medical Center

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