Sarah Tobias plays music for dialysis patient Chris Blackwell, 19, at Akron Children's Hospital.
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AKRON — For Chris Blackwell, the arrival of one special therapist during his four-hour dialysis sessions is truly music to his ears.
When Akron Children’s Hospital music therapist Sarah Tobias visits him every week or two, the constant whooshing sounds of the dialysis machine are replaced with the strumming of her guitar and the soothing blending of their voices.
On a recent morning, Blackwell smiled and tapped his feet in the dialysis chair as he sang along with Tobias to the catchy song, “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
“All my life, I liked to use music as a way to release,” said Blackwell, 19, of Canton, Ohio. “It’s depressing being in this chair so long at my age.”
Music therapy is one of several supportive services Akron Children’s provides for free to patients, families and staffs through its Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center.
Along with Tobias, the center employs a full-time art therapist and contracts with area poets and experts in theater, dance, pottery, jewelry-making and other genres to provide a variety of experiences.
Since the center opened in May 2011, the program has offered services to thousands of patients.
“It’s music and it’s art, but it’s really any sort of creative therapy that would be helpful to any particular child,” said Dr. Sarah Friebert, medical director of the hospital’s Haslinger Family Pediatric Palliative Care Center. “Different kids respond to different types of therapy.”
Hospitals typically can’t bill insurance companies for these and similar support services, she said. Akron Children’s seeks donations and grant support to fund the $240,000 annual budget for expressive therapies.
“We rely on philanthropy and kind-hearted people,” Friebert said.
More research is needed to support “the mounting evidence to show these types of therapies are very helpful treatments to complement mainstream health care,” she said.
Music therapy, for example, can be used to manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and help with physical rehabilitation, according to the American Music Therapy Association.
“It’s just not recognized yet by insurance companies that this is a valuable piece of the holistic healing puzzle,” Friebert said. “We all know that when you are engaged in something creatively, you are using different parts of your brain. It also touches your soul and your spirit.”
Tobias, who has degrees in psychology and music therapy, joined Akron Children’s about a year ago as the hospital’s full-time music therapist.
“I get to be a counselor, but I also get to be a musician and use the music to facilitate the counseling session,” she said.
Some patients need to “get it all out” by banging on a drum, she said. Others improve their range of motion to help with their occupational or physical therapy by playing a small harp.
In Blackwell’s case, Tobias started working with him in the dialysis unit about six months ago after he asked whether the hospital had anyone to help him learn to play the guitar.
The instrument was a gift from the family of a former fellow patient whose father played guitar while Blackwell sang along to pass the time when they had treatments each week. Since then, the patient has received a transplanted kidney and no longer needs dialysis.
Blackwell must undergo dialysis at the hospital three times a week until he gets a kidney transplant. His jam sessions with Tobias often draw the attention of fellow patients and staff members who stop in the doorway outside his room to listen.
“You should go on American Idol,” Carolyn Kovatch, a medical assistant in the unit, said after listening to them on a recent morning.
Blackwell responded with an appreciative laugh and a wide, infectious grin that lit up his face.
"I'm thinking about it — after my transplant," he said.
After singing one song with Blackwell, Tobias read the lyrics line by line as they talked about the meanings.
"Just praying to a God that I don't believe in," she said. "Tell me about that line."
"We all get to a point in our lives when we fall to our knees and just pray," he said.
"Desperation," she said, nodding. "I haven't thought of it that way."
The line opened up a discussion about Blackwell's faith and how he has been coping with his serious illness.
"It's a safe way to talk about what they're feeling," Tobias said after their session.
When his medical problems are behind him, Blackwell wants to draw on his experiences and love of music to become a worship leader.
"I love being an inspiration to others," he said. "It energizes me."