When music meets medicine

Music therapist at Arkansas Children's Hospital changes lives through the healing power of music

Arkansas Children’s Hospital music therapist Andrew Ghrayeb makes music with patient Kylee McCray.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital music therapist Andrew Ghrayeb makes music with patient Kylee McCray.

Throughout the halls of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, you can spot Andrew Ghrayeb making his way to a patient’s room, slinging a guitar on his back and wheeling musical instruments on his cart filled with two xylophones, drums and two ukuleles. Rather than using medicine, Ghrayeb uses the healing power of music.

Ghrayeb is the first board-certified music therapist to work in Children’s Hospital’s Music Therapy program, which was established in December 2014.

The 31-year-old singer-songwriter moved to Little Rock in December 2014 from his hometown of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, 33 miles west of Philadelphia. He earned a master’s degree in music therapy from Immaculata University near Philadelphia.

The music therapy profession began after World War I and World War II when musicians visited hospitals to play for the thousands of veterans suffering from trauma. According to the American Music Therapy Association, there are approximately 5,000 music therapists in the U.S. represented by the organization.

Music therapy is more than just a musician playing by a patient’s bedside. It is defined as an evidence-based, clinical profession in which music is used to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals, from infancy to the elderly.

Ghrayeb provides therapy for 15 to 20 patients a day and meets with those patients two to three times a week. A typical day starts by working with patients in the infant toddler unit first, followed by sessions with patients in the burn unit, the progressive care unit and the adolescent unit.

“I love what I do because it combines my love of music along with my love for helping others,” he says. “Music saved me and has been one of the most consistent influences in my life. With music, there is always something new to discover.”

Ghrayeb has been playing music since age 7. At the behest of his parents, he reluctantly took piano lessons. “I did not particularly enjoy the lessons and never practiced willingly, but it was a lesson in perseverance,” he says.

After picking up the saxophone in the fourth grade, Ghrayeb developed an appreciation for jazz. “I may have been one of the youngest kids listening to Charlie Parker records,” he says.

It wasn’t until he took up guitar in the seventh grade that he really fell in love with music. By the eighth grade, he was in a band and has been playing in bands ever since.

Renee Hunte, director of Child Life and Education at the hospital, says the addition of the Music Therapy program has made a significant effect on the patient-family experience.

“It’s amazing how quickly and easily a patient will engage in a music therapy session,” she says. “When a patient calms to the strum of a guitar or stops crying when they hear a familiar song, it also helps bring calmness to the caregiver. It’s evident that music can touch and stir the soul.”

Before Ghrayeb creates an individualized treatment plan, he must work with other hospital specialists to evaluate the patient’s medical and social situation, followed by an assessment of the patient’s musical experience and preference in music, both of which are key elements in music therapy.

“It is rare that I am ever just playing music for someone,” he says. “I give the patient an opportunity to play different instruments and drive the session. Some patients may want to improvise music; some may want to sing a song that is important to them; some may want to learn the ukulele; and others may want to listen to music and discuss the lyrics. This all gives me information on how the patient is feeling. And this is where the therapy happens. The goals of the therapy session can range from encouraging self-expression, reducing anxiety or improving speech.”

Michelle McCray, of Caddo Valley, saw firsthand the healing effect Ghrayeb’s therapy had on her 7-year-old daughter, Kylee, who has cystic fibrosis. Kylee has been in and out of hospitals since she was 3 years old. In February, Kylee spent 19 days receiving treatment at Children’s Hospital.

“Kylee was very upset from having to have so many treatments,” McCray says. “We were trying everything we could do to calm her down. Andrew came into her room to do a session, and as soon as he started playing the guitar, she instantly calmed down and stopped crying. Soon, they were singing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Her eyes lit up. It was the first time in a while that I had seen her smile.”

During another session, Kylee was upset that she had a PICC line, a peripherally inserted central catheter, in her arm. “Andrew gently directed her to play the xylophone. She relaxed and forgot what the nurses were doing. He made her forget about the pain in her arm,” McCray says. “She even let the nurses give her the medicine. Before, she would only let me do it. To see the progress and the positive change in her was just unreal. He helped her when nothing else could. To see your child, just for a moment, forget that something is wrong is worth so much.”

Not all patients are so willing to participate. Ghrayeb recalls working with a teenager who was originally reluctant to receive his help. “She probably thought, ‘Who is this guy with a guitar, and why is he in my room?’

“We tried to improvise some music, and then she stopped and asked me, ‘Can you just play, and I’ll listen?’ She was feeling fatigued and in pain at the time. I asked her what music she liked. She said she liked Coldplay.

“So I told her to close her eyes and just focus on her breathing. I began playing and singing a Coldplay song. By the second verse, she started to sing along quietly. By the end of the session, we had sung several more songs, and she was sitting up and smiling. I later came to find out that after she left the hospital, she came back to visit and told hospital staff that she wanted to go to college to become a music therapist.”

Ghrayeb continues to write songs in his spare time and is hoping to start a band in Little Rock. He says he misses his home state but is discovering the charms of Little Rock.

“Little Rock is growing on me because I feel there is a sense of community here. The city has a lot to offer. There is so much to do here in terms of food, art and culture,” he says.