“Helps us express things:” Young patients find relief through art, music and dance

MILWAUKEE -- Expressive therapies are part of the treatment for thousands of patients at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. In some cases, expressive therapies can help patients heal in ways medicine can’t.

From the day he was born, Nathan Smith has been a fighter.

Nathan Smith

“I did not think he could live,” said Holly Smith, Nathan’s mom.  “I didn't think it was something he could survive.”

Nathan will soon celebrate his 10th birthday, and music therapy has been a part of his life ever since he was four.

“It really helps him to express things, and it also helps us to express things that we might not otherwise know how to say,” said Smith.

At the age of two months, Nathan was diagnosed with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease. ARPKD  is a rare genetic disorder occurring in just one in 20,000 children.

Nathan Smith

There is no cure.

Nathan is alive thanks  to a liver transplant and a kidney transplant.

“He has fought a really long battle,” said Smith.

And there could be more procedures ahead. Nathan’s family is moving to Wauwatosa from Oklahoma so a team of specialists at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin can manage his care.

Expressive therapies are part of Nathan's treatment plan.

“Music has an order to it, and that provides stability and grounding for these patients at such a young age,” said Melissa Neitzel, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin music therapist.

Nathan Smith

Music therapy soothes Nathan and creates a safe space. The sounds allow him to express his emotions. Nathan likes to play different instruments. Sometimes, he writes songs.

“You can tell when he’s on the piano that his playing starts to open up. He gets a little more broad when he is going across the keyboard,” said Neitzel.

Music therapy is one of three expressive therapies offered to patients at Children’s Hospital.

“It is the differentiator of care between an adult environment and a children's environment,” said Maggie Butterfield, director of patient amenities and family services at Children’s Hospital Of Wisconsin.

Expressive therapies help young patients to better cope with their condition.

“It is helping them understand what their capabilities are through a uniquely different way of expressing themselves,” said Butterfield.

Nathan’s dance therapist, Jenna Maltby, knows his favorite game.

“I love blowing bubbles and trying to pop them before they hit the ground,” said Nathan Smith.

The game is Maltby’s way of working on Nathan’s movements, or reducing his stress. For the patients, it does not feel like therapy.

“It shouldn't be called therapy. It should be called...funly doing this!” said Nathan Smith.

But not every session is so cheerful.

“Maybe there is sadness or anger that comes out,” said Maltby.

In some cases, Maltby says expressive therapies can give patients a rare sense of control.

“The ability for them to say 'no' is something they don`t really get in the hospital because they have doctors and nurses, and schedules that they have to follow,” said Maltby.

Families can participate in the therapies too.

"Art is a great way to cope and to heal and to be able to get through to the next hurdle,” said Stephen Campbell, Nathan’s art therapist at Children’s Hospital.

The Smiths work with two art therapists. They have a portfolio of artwork from their sessions at the Ronald McDonald House. Each piece reflects a different part of the healing process.

“How I see him as a warrior and fighting these battles, and the things that help us through,” said Nathan’s mom, Holly Smith.

Nathan loves art because it is a time to let his imagination run wild.

“There is just this blank piece of paper. There is nothing, and you can just draw or paint whatever you want on it,” said Nathan Smith, as he drew an alien invasion on the canvas. “The moon and the sun are colliding. We're just going to step in and invade here!”

The expressive therapists say creativity is good for the soul. The therapies show patients they are not defined by their condition, allowing them to heal through the arts.

“They start to feel a bit more like themselves again,” said Campbell.

Below are some stats related to CHW's Expressive Therapies Program:

Collectively between August 1st, 2016 –June 30th, 2017:

  • Art Therapy= facilitated approximately 982 sessions for families
  • Music Therapist= has facilitated 570 sessions
  • Dance/Movement Therapist= 375 sessions
  • Sessions can include any combination of family members/caregivers.

CLICK HERE to learn more about expressive therapy at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

CLICK HERE to take a look at the Amazon Wish List for the CHW Expressive Therapies Program, and to make a donation.