How a Song Saved an 8 Year-Old Boy’s Life

Many people have heard of music therapy, but aren’t entirely sure about what it is, or how—and IF—it works.

So today, I wanted to shed a little light on this topic with an incredible story from my friend, Debbie Benkovitz, a licensed music therapist. She shared this story with me years ago and I’ll never forget it.

It’s about the time she helped save the life of an eight-year-old boy named Liam.

Music to the rescue

Young Liam suffered from a mitochondrial disorder. This meant that his mitochondria—the cellular structures responsible for more than 90% of his body’s energy—weren’t performing correctly. In other words, he wasn’t producing enough energy for his body to function properly.

This can lead to organ dysfunction, nerve problems, muscle weakness, seizures, and a loss of major motor functions or senses.

Liam needed immediate surgery, but the anesthesia wasn’t working. He just wasn’t taking to it, and the anesthesiologist didn’t want to pump any more into his little body.

But if he didn’t get the procedure that day, the consequences would be dire.

After exhausting several options, the doctors became increasingly concerned about their ability to help Liam. One of the nurses suggested bringing in a music therapist to keep Liam distracted.

They called Debbie to the operating room. Dressed in scrubs, with her freshly sterilized guitar in hand, she introduced herself to Liam.

She remembers how tiny he looked on that big, sterile operating table. And Debbie could sense how nervous and uncomfortable he was (understandably so).

She asked Liam if he’d like to help her write a song. Although a bit hesitant, he shook his head yes.

Debbie sat with him at the head of the bed and began strumming chords to “Down by the Bay,” a silly, rhyming children’s song about animals.

She proceeded to ask Liam about his favorite animals and what he liked about them. And together, they made up song lyrics using his ideas.

While he was distracted by this creative process, the doctors got to work on the surgical procedure.

Though there was some pain and a few tears here and there, Liam was responding well to the process overall…

And he was loving the chance to make a song with Debbie! So much so, he began asking the members of the medical team to join him in the verses.

“I want nurse Tammy to sing the next one,” he’d exclaim. And she gladly obliged. He continued, “I want Dr. Lee to sing the next one!”

Soon, Liam’s surgery was complete.

That day, music and a skillful therapist saved the day.

How to use the soothing power of songwriting anywhere, anytime

Debbie, now the President Elect of the American Music Therapy Association, was recently featured as a guest on my new Sound Health Podcast. And not surprisingly, she had plenty more interesting stories to share, like:

  • All the ways she’s using music to help alleviate pain in cancer patients

  • How music therapy is developing the brains of premature babies and helping them bond with their family

  • DIY music therapy tips you can use right now (even at the dentist!)

  • Why learning to play an instrument is one of the best things you can do for yourself

  • The full story of how she used music to help Liam through multiple surgeries without anesthesia

You can listen to the full episode here.

The takeaway for today is this: When you need a distraction, or to help a loved one get through a tough time, I recommend making up a song.

It can be silly, sad, or sweet. Or it can just be about how you’re both feeling in the moment.

It doesn’t have to rhyme, or it can if you’d like.

You can play an instrument, or just use your voice…

There are no rules.

As Debbie so fittingly reminds us in this episode, “It doesn’t matter how young or old you are… you can start making music anytime.”

Just remember that you don’t have to be the best songwriter, singer, or musician. The health benefits come from the process of doing.

In future issues of this newsletter, as well as podcast episodes, I’ll continue sharing the many ways you can harness your creativity to benefit not only yourself, but those around you.

I’d love to hear what you think about the new podcast! Drop me a line on the Sound Health Facebook page.

Be Well,

Jim Donovan, M.Ed.

P.S. – If you want to learn more sound-based techniques to help you relax, eliminate anxiety, and stimulate whole-body healing, you might be interested in my Sound Mind Protocol. Click here to learn more or to give it a try today.

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.