Music has the power to inspire, uplift, entertain, stir memory, comfort and heal. Melissa Neitzel ’15, a music therapist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, harnesses this power daily to help patients and their families.
A lifelong musician, Melissa enrolled in Alverno’s Music Therapy program so she could pair her love of music with helping people navigate medical and mental health issues.
The opportunity to serve as a music volunteer at Children’s was presented to me by an Alverno professor. I fell in love with the population. I made awesome connections, the staff was always helpful, and it was a positive environment. I had a feeling that this was the direction I wanted to take.
Now a Children’s employee, Melissa deploys her musical talents to help patients and their families navigate some of life’s most challenging moments.
When I first started working at Children’s, I met a teenager who had a mitochondrial disorder and was frequently hospitalized. One of her coping mechanisms was singing. There’s a beautiful connection that we had created with her and her mom. During one session, the mother, who was typically very reserved, started to cry. We had created a safe space for her to release her emotions.
When it became clear that her patient was nearing the end of her life, Melissa helped the family prepare for the inevitable.
It was a really difficult situation. We focused the sessions on building her legacy. The mother really loved hearing her daughter sing, so we created a CD of the patient singing her favorite song. It was a helpful end-of-life intervention.
Melissa wondered if more patients might benefit from music’s healing power. She proposed introducing music therapy to Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), citing a growing body of scientific research to support the physiological benefits of music therapy for premature babies.
There had been no music therapy support to this population yet, so I felt very strongly that this was an area of need. My supervisors were very supportive, and I got their full backing to move forward.
When infants are born so early, they miss out on a critical time for development. Any sense of overstimulation releases stress, which hurts their neural development. Their brains basically pause. Music therapy helps increase their tolerance to sound, decreasing those stressful moments so they continue to develop and get home sooner.
Under the tutelage of trained professionals in Louisville, Ky., Melissa gained hands-on experience in providing music therapy to NICU patients. She then introduced these methods to Children’s.
We use the Multimodal Neurological Enhancement (MNE) protocol, which helps infants tolerate and process different stimulation. The intervention starts with humming because that’s the least stimulating. You’re watching for signs of overstimulation through the infant’s facial response, body response and vital signs. If the infant tolerates humming, then you move to singing, then massage and later rocking. If they show signs of overstimulation, then you wait for them to calm down before you continue.
Melissa gets the approval of NICU nurses and the infants’ parents before working with a patient and says they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive.
Sometimes, parents are nervous around all the wires and machines of the NICU. But I can teach them a new way to interact with their baby. Research shows that music therapy increases parents’ comfort with the NICU, so they spend more time with their babies and have more opportunities to bond.
Melissa’s Alverno education prepared her to advocate for her patients, for herself and for her ideas.
Alverno’s emphasis on public speaking has been really beneficial. It helps to be able to speak to what you can do and what services you can provide, and to do so with confidence.
Melissa now hopes to expand her NICU practice at Children’s. She has the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of her patients and their families.
We’re setting these infants up for success for the rest of their lives. We’re helping them to grow and achieve developmental milestones. It’s so rewarding to work with them and their families.
Click here to learn more about Alverno's new Master of Music Therapy.