Oliver Jacobson started playing violin when he was six years old. At 18, he enrolled at Berklee College of Music, one of the top music schools in the country. Back then, he wanted to be a star. But he had a sense he might be able to use his talent for something more.
“I was in the practice rooms for four hours a day,” he says, “trying to be the best jazz violinist I could be, and just feeling kind of hollow in that.”
Then he learned about a field called music therapy, which uses music as a tool to help patients cope and heal, both physically and emotionally. When Jacobson discovered it, his whole outlook changed: “It just seemed like a way for me to help others in a very tangible way.”
Now, he spends his days lugging musical instruments through the halls of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.
One of his patients is Maia Mead. On the day I visit, she is just 8 months old, and has been at the hospital since the day she was born. Oliver Jacobson visits her once or twice a week.
Maia was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare and complex heart defect. The left side of her heart -- the one that usually pumps blood to the body -- never developed. And early on, she also got kidney failure -- which doctors said, made her chance of survival incredibly low.
But after the first of three complicated surgeries, Maia rallied. She was still in recovery during our visit, and waiting for her second surgery. Gordon Mead, Maia’s dad, says Jacobson’s visits are part of what’s helping her get better.
“Her change when Oliver comes in is really internal,” says Mead. “You see her grow spiritually … Watching her grow like that, you know that every part of her body is growing: her spirit, her heart, her body and her mind.”
Jacobson is UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s only music therapist. He uses music to help patients heal – everything from regaining motor or speech skills, to stress relief, or just as a way to talk about their feelings. Often, it helps them forget about their hospital surroundings and just be themselves.
“As a therapist, I have to look at their diagnosis and what their goals are,” he says. But he also makes an effort to consider the child beyond the hospital chart. A big part of music therapy is helping the child be “who they are,” says Jacobson. “I think music therapy really helps kids just be kids, not necessarily a diagnosis.”
With Maia, he says music is a great way to help with her coordination. During her session, she ably handles two shakers, shaking vigorously while Jacobson sings and play guitar. She’s gradually been getting stronger, something he can see when they make music together. Before, as a baby in critical condition, she didn’t have the energy or the stamina, and could only shake one.
While he plays, Jacobson also takes notes, and after his session with Maia, he’ll chart her progress. He says it might read something like this: “Grasped a shaker with left and right hands. Shook for approximately 5, 10 minutes.”
For his work, Jacobson uses music to help his patients reach specific, therapeutic goals. He’s not merely the hospital’s resident musician – aside from his formal music training, he’s also a professional therapist.
Many of the country’s top children’s hospitals have music therapy programs, and people like Jacobson are becoming a more common part of the medical profession, just like doctors and nurses. But instead of using a stethoscope or scalpel, Jacobson has a bag of instruments he drags behind him through the halls of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. During his sessions, he pulls a variety of instruments out throughout the day, including shakers, a ukulele, a buffalo drum, and an “arsenal of drumsticks.”
Vivian Hernandez, a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, or PICU, has seen Jacobson’s sessions first-hand. She says that in the hospital ward, with a bevy of noisy distractions that include “monitors, alarms, frequent visits from the doctor, repositioning, different interventions from nurses,” it can be a “very over-stimulating environment,” which Jacobson helps his patients escape, if only for a little while.
One child in the PICU is Michael Sellu, a six year old with pneumonia. He’s lethargic, and very tired: This session will be targeted towards stress reduction, pain management and relaxation. Before heading in, Jacobson rubs on hand sanitizer, cleans his equipment and puts on a hospital mask.
Jacobson plays reggae music during their session, and makes sure to include Michael’s favorite song, “Three Little Birds.” Jacobson’s music is not only for Michael, but also his mother, who cries during the session.
Jacobson says his music therapy can also help parents, providing a chance for them to get a break -- and it can be a tangible way for them to help their child heal.
Kids in the hospital can be here for weeks, or even months. They might be facing a major diagnosis, and during that time, Jacobson and the staff try to them maintain a sense of normalcy.
That’s what a big part of his job is --- helping kids figure out and express their feelings.
He did so while writing a song with Haley Gomez, a nine-year-old with leukemia. They called it “I Didn’t Know,” and recorded the track at the hospital, turning Haley’s room into a studio. She produced the song, with her dad joining in as part of the band.
Her song, Jacobson says, was a means for her to process what was happening to her body. “It was amazing to see her come to this insight in that process [of making a song],” he says. In the song, Haley grapples with her diagnosis:
Years ago, it was hard for me / It was like a dark hole / that swallowed me.
It made me feel angry / because they didn’t know / what was wrong with me.
I didn’t know / what was going on with me / I didn’t know / what was happening to me / I didn’t know / I didn’t know
Hernandez says Jacobson helps kids taps into a place that can be hard to find. “I think some of the work that Oliver has done with these kids is just really really deep … primal,” she says. “It just sort of takes them to a different place for a little while.”
It’s a place that Jacobson himself is transported to when he plays.
“I am taken to another place, another plane,” he says, “and this world kind of disappears. And I go to -- it’s hard to describe -- I go to a better place, otherworldly place.”
“And that fills me. Fills me up and gives me the energy that I need. So, I try to take these kids to that place, too.”
Update: Maia Mead passed away on August 29, 2014. Maia's Life Celebration will now take place on Saturday, September 6th, with details below. To read about her life journey, go to http://heartofmaia.blogspot.com/.
Maia's Life Celebration
Doors open at 11 am
St. Dunstan Catholic Church
1133 Broadway Avenue
Millbrae, CA 94030