Annette Whitehead-Pleaux, M.A., MT-BC, is an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music. In addition, she teaches LENS courses on LGBTQ+ Identities in the Creative Arts. Annette also teaches at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in the Masters and Equivalency programs, at Colorado State University, Loyola University in New Orleans, and at Lesley University all in the Master programs. With 10 articles, 13 chapters, and two books, she has been an active researcher, focusing on pain, anxiety, electronic music technology, and cultural responsiveness in music therapy. Recently I got a chance to talk to her about her work in the area of pediatric burn care and cultural diversity in music therapy. Here i tell you about the first part of my conversation with her on how music therapy helps kids cope with burns:
25 Years Doing Music Therapy
Annette has worked as a music therapist for 25 years. She initially worked for 5 years before starting her master’s degree. After going through the master’s program, she opened up to bigger and deeper ideas about music therapy. She also gained tools for what she wanted to do with research and writing. In her 25 years, Annette has grown a lot, from a basic clinician to a researcher, writer, educator, and consultant.
Working in Pediatric Burn Care
Annette has worked extensively in the pediatric burn care unit at Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston. She first learned about the pediatric burn population while in school. Unfortunately, when she got out of her internship there were no positions in this area, so initially she worked in psychiatry. Eventually, she saw an announcement for a 20 hour position at Shriners Hospital, so she applied and got the job! Annette worked there for 15 years there and it was all she hoped for and more as she worked for many years on helping kids cope with burns.
Children and Pain
Children handle pain differently depending on their developmental stage. For younger children some of their coping is through their parents. Then, as they get older they can cope more on their own. They still experience pain much like adults. There’s been theories that they don’t experience pain the same way but the research has shown otherwise. At Shriners, they have children from all over the world. So because in some places they don’t think that kids experience pain the same way, they are under-medicated. Some children develop medical trauma symptoms from being under-medicated.
Music Therapy and Pain
As a music therapist, Annette’s role is as a non-pharmacological way of dealing with pain and cope with burns and pain. She would use a lot of live music therapy to do things like music assisted relaxation. Sometimes she also did music alternative engagement. That is the one thing she did the most, so she would engage the kid in the experience through active listening, playing, singing, or whatever was best for them, depending on how awake they were and how they coped.
If they were active copers and they did better with being engaged she asked them questions and kept them engaged. For children who were avoidant copers – kids who cope by not paying attention to what’s going on – she would get them very engaged in music to draw their attention from what was happening with their body. She tried to use their favorite music or music they knew. So she would bring her guitar and sing and the kid would stop crying, helping with procedures and pain coping.
Kids in the Pediatric Burn Unit
Some children would only be there for a procedure one day and then head home, and then other children would stay sometimes for many months depending on how large the burn was. Sometimes after their skin healed they would still be there for rehabilitation.
Other objectives that Annette would work on besides helping to cope with burns were anxiety management, decreasing PTSD symptoms, preventing re-traumatization in the hospital experience, and moderating their level of arousal during medical procedures. She also worked with children on their identity development, specially when there was any physical disfigurement. She worked with them on expression of emotions around all that happened with the injury and so on. And she also worked with physical therapists and occupational therapists on rehabilitation, fine and gross motor skills, as well as developing adaptive devices.
Here are two stories Annette told me!
“We saw a lot of people from Latin America. This was early in my time there. This girl came, she was two years old and was from Guatemala. She was in a house fire, she had arrived earlier in the day and had not stopped crying the whole day. She had been seen in a hospital and stabilized and then sent to our hospital. So I was asked to come to see her. I didn’t know any Latin-American children songs, so I just improvised on la-la-la and with a sort of lullaby feel to it with a chord progression that was simple.
And she started to relax and be more calm and was watching me. She stopped crying, so I asked her to sing with me and she sang la-la-la along. And her mom and the nurse were tearing up and crying because that was the first time she had been happy in days. It was so moving! She came back for several appointments and surgeries. I saw her through many years and it was really cool to see her grow up. She was engaged in music and life and she didn’t allow the changes that happened when she was so young to let her slow down.”
“I was working with a girl for pre-operation. She had been coming to the hospital since she was an infant and she was from Peru. So she was around 10 at this time. She became averse to go to the operation room because she had so many. It was the day before surgery and she was feeling grumpy about it. So I asked her to write a song about everything, about going to the surgery and her feelings about it. So we wrote a song and then we still had some extra time so I suggested to make a music video. We planned everything we were going to do about it. So together we shot the video and I used some special effects, it was a really fun project!
So after the surgery I was able to bring her the video so she could have that. We talked about it many times after that. It was her chance to share her experiences and feelings. I just allowed her to say what she didn’t like about surgery. With that she had a sort of success experience of creating a song and a video and recording them. So she had that sense of pride of doing these creative things. She shared it with her friends and family, it was a great experience!”
Music therapy helps kids cope with burns in so many ways! Shrines Hospital for Children in Boston is really special, but at our partner hospitals, the music therapists also deal with pain and much of the same issues. If you want to support our work so that more children can have music and art therapy to cope with pain, anxiety, and more, you can donate here.