Music therapy ‘instrumental’ in recovery for 2-year-old heart patient. Vital patient program made possible by donors

Melissa Varner
October 12, 2021
A music therapist kneels on a blanket on a hospital floor, playing guitar for a 2-year-old heart patient dressed as a super hero. He is wearing a blue cape with blue goggles pushed up on his head.
Music therapist Meredith Horwatt plays “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on a guitar for 2-year-old James Henson.

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses may not be what you would expect to find on a 2-year-old’s playlist, but it’s James Henson’s favorite. He loves listening to music therapist Meredith Horwatt, MT-BC, strum a lullaby version of the rock classic on her guitar.

The two met at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital in March 2020, where James spent a few weeks recovering from the heart surgery that saved his life. Horwatt is part of the Arts in Healing team at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The department is made up of a clinical team of art and music therapists who use the arts to heal.

“The hospital is a scary place, especially for a child,” Horwatt said. “When I would come in with my instruments, James would always just look at me and immediately start smiling.”

Music was instrumental to James’ recovery, said his father, Ryan Henson. “Before we met Meredith, we didn't really know about the different therapies available in the hospital other than occupational or physical.”

Like a physical or occupational therapist, a music therapist is specially trained and must earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree from an approved university. Music therapists must also be board-certified to practice. They work with patients and their families to meet physical, emotional, cognitive, social or communication goals through music, Horwatt explained.

A music therapy session may include singing, playing an instrument or listening to music. “Music is understood by all cultures in different ways,” she said. “And that's a very basic way to connect with somebody.”

A music therapist sits kneels on a blanket on a hospital floor, holding a guitar while a 2-year-old heart touches the strings and smiles for the camera. She is wearing blue scrub pants and a long-sleeved white T-shirt. He is wearing a green plaid shirt and khakis and has a tube and wires attached to him. 
Music therapist Meredith Horwatt and James.

Henson says it was the perfect way to connect with James. “His favorite thing in the world is music, whether it's dancing or playing or seeing or just listening to it,” he said.

“There were days that he had just come out of surgery and was very sleepy, but the second he heard my guitar he would perk up and look at me and smile,” Horwatt said. “I know for his family that meant a lot just to see him have some kind of normal experience.”

Henson wholeheartedly agreed. “It was always the best part of the day for him and a lot of times it would be for us too, especially depending on what news we received that day.”

When the Hensons returned to MUSC for another heart surgery in January 2021, they made signing James up for music therapy their top priority.

“It's funny, we’re staring down this heart surgery and I'm like, ‘Look, make sure you sign him up for music therapy. That's what's most important here,’” Henson said half-jokingly.

A referral for music or art therapy can be made by a physician or nurse. The service is complimentary for patients and families who stay at MUSC, thanks to generous donors who make the program possible.

“Thank you for giving your money to MUSC,” Henson said. “You change what’s possible by giving your money to support people like Meredith, who help make hospital stays easier for patients and their families.”

“When our Arts in Healing program first started, we didn't have much,” Horwatt explained. “Through the support of so many people in the community, they have made it possible for us to expand what we do, not only with the materials that we have but the employees that we have as well. That enables us to reach more patients. We're just really grateful.”