Their music helps the medicine go down

Cris Valkyria (left) and Lou Paglione sing and play at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. They are part of WXPN Musicians on Call, which entertains youngsters at a number of area hospitals.
Cris Valkyria (left) and Lou Paglione sing and play at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. They are part of WXPN Musicians on Call, which entertains youngsters at a number of area hospitals. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)

A duo sings and plays for hospitalized children. "We need to make them smile," says one performer.

Posted: February 01, 2012

Elise Strand was stuck in her hospital bed, undergoing high-tech wound therapy, when two musicians came into her hospital room to play at her bedside.

She requested a love song. Their voices carried like a breeze through the room - a harmonious, delicate blend rising to a crescendo of echoing guitar strings.

"Oh wow! That was great. That was amazing," said Strand, 14. Her eyes were wide with excitement. "I love the guitar. It's an amazing instrument."

Before her treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the teenager from Burlington once played the guitar herself. She was forced to stop after she developed a rare skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). The HS caused inflammation and painful boils in Strand's underarms that made it difficult and painful for her to play.

Strand was in the hospital undergoing vacuum-assisted closure (VAC), which helps drain the discharge and promotes rapid healing. The music made her time in bed more bearable.

Strand wasn't the only kid to get a lift from a musical interlude. The two musicians who sang for Strand, Cris Valkyria from Philadelphia and Lou Paglione from Williamstown, were part of Musicians on Call - a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City that brings volunteer musicians to the bedsides of patients each week. WXPN-FM (88.5), the University of Pennsylvania public radio station, partnered with Musicians on Call in 2004 to form the Philadelphia branch.

WXPN Musicians on Call play for patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

Valkyria and Paglione, performing as "Cris and Lou Children's Project," began volunteering at Children's Hospital and St. Christopher's more than a year ago. They visit between 15 and 30 children a month with their alternative-indie-folk-rock-pop music.

When they're not on call, the two also play together in the band Cris Valkyria and the Opponents.

They began writing songs for kids when Valkyria realized she could use music to help parents with child-rearing. She was having trouble potty training her son at the time, and composed a catchy song to make the job easier. Now, Valkyria and Paglione's "Potty Training Song" and other songs such as "Thank You" focus on manners and life lessons.

"We need to make them smile," Paglione said of performing for hospitalized children. "They're sitting in the room all day, listening to machines, seeing strange people. . . . We want to be the entertainers that give them a little bit of joy, at least two or three minutes of happiness."

The duo next visited 4-year-old Emma Hoolin, who had come to Children's Hospital from Manchester, England, with her parents, Mark and Jill Hoolin.

Emma suffers from high-risk neuroblastoma, a type of cancer affecting infants and young children that originates in the sympathetic nervous system.

Valkyria and Paglione sang their bouncy "Brush Your Teeth Song" for the Hoolins. Emma sucked on a pink pacifier, staring curiously at the musicians as they sang over a funky twang of plucked guitar strings. "She likes it," Jill Hoolin said. "Because otherwise she'd be sitting there with nothing at all. . . . She lies there all day long."

John Maris, chief of the division of oncology and director of the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Children's Hospital, said that the program has been positive for the patients and their families. "There's no doubt that this program has a real impact beyond the feel-good aspect of it," he said. Although the program is not being measured in any clinical study and is a "very difficult thing to quantify," he said he sees it affecting the health and well-being of the children at the hospital.

Kids look forward to the musicians' weekly after-dinner visits, said Michael Hill, director of volunteers and programming for Musicians on Call. "It's like waiting for your favorite program."

He said the program likes to distinguish itself as entertainment, as opposed to therapy. The hospital already has therapeutic art and music programs through its Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy department.

Entertainers bring a "sense of normalcy" to hospitalized children, said Amy Troyano, certified music therapist in the department. "People have favorite songs for a reason. It means something to them, and it connects them to something healthy."

The performers get something out of singing in hospitals too. The gratitude of the parents, Valkyria said, makes it worthwhile. "To just see the parents' relief, that their child is smiling for a few minutes because all they have to deal with all day is despair - that little smile is worth so much."

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