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The PEDIATRIC MUSIC THERAPIST



Jessica Sturgeon

This compassionate traveling minstrel soothes ailing children with her car full of musical instruments. In New York using public transit, she had to stuff her guitar case with smaller instruments. “It weighed 25 pounds and people could hear me jingling everywhere I went.” LORI VAN DIEN PHOTO

BY LORI VAN DIEN

As a young girl of 7, Jessica Sturgeon knew she wanted to work with dying children.

“I was enamored with the book series by Lurlene McDaniel about children with cancer and their journeys,” Sturgeon says. “I still don’t know why. I decided to work with dying kids in junior high but didn’t know how. I wanted to be a doctor, but didn’t want the years of school. I thought of being a nurse, but didn’t want to be underappreciated and overworked, so I said, ‘I’ll figure it out later.’ ”

Like most people, Sturgeon didn’t know about music therapy. She was passionate about music but wasn’t interested in performing. During orientation at the University of Evansville in Indiana, she discovered it offered dual degrees.

“So I decided on music education and music therapy. In this economy, it’s good to have two degrees since music programs are always being cut,” Sturgeon says. “When I learned of music therapy, everything clicked for me and I knew it was meant to be,” she says. “I’ve been so blessed to follow my passion – even though I have to pay off student loans the rest of my life. I worked hard to put myself through college and my internship, but it was so worth it.

“In the real world at 25 years old, I’m still a child and I already love what I do every day. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

Music therapy is found in schools, homes, behavioral and mental health, and geriatric settings.

“It can be used anywhere,” she says. “I chose hospice so that’s where I got my training to become board certified.”

Sturgeon is employed at Treasure Coast Hospice in the Little Treasures Pediatric Care program. Her team works with the state-run program, Partners in Care: Together for Kids. She visits children at their homes, bringing with her a trunk full of musical instruments including guitars, a Djembe drum, cabasas, a bag of shakers, bells and scarves.

“Cabasas are a Latin American instrument helpful for children with limited engagement who need sensory input. It can be rolled on their arms,” Sturgeon says. “It helps calm autistic children who have overstimulation and helps with desensitizing them to touching, because touching can be so hard for them. An instrument making sounds is a lot less threatening.”

During her practicum, Sturgeon quickly realized music could soothe, comfort and carry a child’s soul gracefully from this realm to the next.

“One child on life support died recently after the father arrived,” teammate Diane Felter recalls. “Our entire Little Treasures team sat with the family the whole day. Jessica played for their dying child for 10 straight hours.”

“It’s not just playing music,” Sturgeon says. “I have to get in tune with the child’s body rhythms to sense what and how to play.”

Though it might sound spiritual, the more than five years of clinical study help her know what each patient needs, along with discerning the fluctuating emotions of those in the room. Beyond the musical aspect, she also has to know psychology, anatomy, physiology, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Sturgeon points out that there are very few music therapists in the United States and many people don’t understand their importance. It’s an uphill battle to get music therapy to places that deserve this service.

“I have triumphs every day and they are all completely different,” she says. “That’s one reason I love my job so much. Because every day I see progress.”

In her first job as a board certified music therapist, Sturgeon was working with an autistic boy who loved music. He couldn’t speak, but remarkably could sing an entire song.

“So I would sing questions to him and he would respond singing,” she says. “One session, I stopped singing, continued playing the guitar and began speaking to him, and he answered back speaking. We had a conversation for about two minutes until he got distracted. That was my first experience where I could see this amazing transformation happen within that moment.”

Sturgeon explains some cases take time – such as working with a teenager in the Bronx. “Because, well first I’m a white girl from Indiana and he was a teenage boy, so we played video games, and not much to do with music for a while,” she says.

“He was having a bad day, so I said I’m going to rap for you and asked him to pick out a singer. He told me to look up J. Cole. So the next session I came and rapped for him and he couldn’t stop laughing. He said, ‘OK, I’m going to write my own rap with you, I’ll even write about my feelings.’

“He died before finishing, but his close friends and family finished the song for him. Therapy went from additional support, to end of life care, to bereavement with his loved ones. Music therapy was for him, but affected everyone close to him. They also thought it was hilarious that I was rapping. I can throw down some rap if I need to and then go to another house and sing Mustang Sally.

“I’ve helped a lady poop. Sitting outside the bathroom playing Come to the Garden and I’d hear her say, ‘Hallelujah!’ It was in the Bronx,” Sturgeon says. “She was an elderly Baptist woman with lung cancer. The disease and pain medication caused constipation, so she’d call and I’d go to her room and play until she relaxed enough to go. I have so many moments like that where I can look back and just laugh.”

But there are sad days in this line of work, too.

“We lost two children within two hours of each other and calling to tell my husband, I just broke down crying. Looking back now, I think what it would have been like if they didn’t have our team. The moms and dads would have been way less prepared. The second child was in our hospice house and would have been in pain right up to the last minute. But she was able to be comfortable, surrounded by her family on neutral ground.”

The Little Treasures team works together to bring comfort to children in great pain. Sturgeon will play guitar while Felter, who is a registered pediatric nurse, tends to an anxious child.

“The mom told us that because her daughter doesn’t understand what’s happening, it usually takes two people holding her to change the dressing,” Felter says. “Jessica’s musical distraction calms her, allowing me to administer medication or perform a procedure that would normally bring a great deal of resistance and stress. The mom was amazed at how relaxed she was.”

She went on to say, “Each member of our team has an area of expertise to make things better for the families. Jessica not only has the education for this job but also the heart. She does things totally unrelated to music therapy, like putting on a gala surprise 18th birthday party and graduation for ailing twins on our program. There is always sadness, but us being there makes things much better.”

Amy Manko, a licensed clinical social worker, also has high praise for her co-worker.

“Jessica is a spirited, talented and gentle soul,” she says. “She works with the kids on our program in a way that puts them at ease, using her therapeutic approaches through music to help kids and families meet their goals. When we do visits together, we complement each other and only support the children and families further. She’s always positive and a joy to work with.”

Music therapy can be used from womb to tomb. Many women choose prenatal and neonatal music therapy for a child they know may not live long after birth or may not make it to term. It creates positive memories for everyone involved. Treasure Coast Hospice provides this service from birth to age 21.

“Jessica helps children write and record goodbye songs,” Felter says. “One girl was losing the ability to talk, but could sing quietly so Jessica played chords and voiced familiar things the girl had said before about loving her daddy. The family has that recording.”

Sturgeon visits a young man weekly to help him write songs to every member of his family.

“He’s leaving a legacy, but also processing his emotions for saying goodbye,” Sturgeon says. “They’re all being recorded and you can hear his machine in the background and us talking sometimes. Those are things his family is going to keep forever.

“When we suggest to parents their child go to hospice, we aren’t telling them to give up hope, or they can no longer do things for their child,” Sturgeon says. “When health-care reform came through it enacted Concurrent Care for Children, which means you can elect the hospice benefit and simultaneously receive other curative measures. With regular hospice you’re giving up life-sustaining treatments, letting the body go naturally. But you can’t tell parents they can no longer try everything possible for their child. I love it when a child graduates from hospice and goes home with their parents. And it does happen.

“You need hope,” she says. “You can’t live without hope. We are instilled with hope, that’s what makes humans so wonderful, because we are constantly hopeful. We should never give up on that.”



JESSICA STURGEON

Age: 25
Residence: Port St. Lucie
Family: Husband, Jon, 26
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in music therapy and music education from University of Evansville
Occupation: Pediatric music therapist at Treasure Coast Hospice Little Treasures Pediatric Care Program
Hobbies: “I love my job so much I feel it’s like my hobby. I also love the beach.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I’m such an open book, I feel everyone knows everything already. I’ve had 11 ear piercings, but only three holes on each. When I was little I was afraid to put the earrings back in so the holes grew over. When getting them redone, I flinched and one hole was way off so once those grew back in, I had them redone.”