Music therapy a calling for Sanford Health’s Anna Mitchell

Combining talent and caregiving, 'private concerts' offer patients moments of calm

Music therapy a calling for Sanford Health’s Anna Mitchell

To see someone playing a guitar with gloves on is an odd part of the pandemic-era routine at a hospital, but Sanford Health‘s Anna Mitchell has taken on the challenge of administering music therapy during this difficult time with enthusiasm and good humor.

As a certified music therapist with Sanford Medical Center Fargo (North Dakota), Mitchell’s time is filled with getting to know new people and, in many cases, getting to know new songs. She sings these songs through a protective mask that is covered by a clear plastic face shield. The shield looks like it came off a hockey helmet.

“It takes some getting used to, for sure,” she admitted.

Two of Mitchell’s new friends are Luke Johnson and his mother, Stephanie Johnson. The process of getting to know Luke’s music has been in step with getting to know Luke. That’s how it often works for music therapists.

“Luke and I and some of the other patients joke a little bit about it,” she said. “The more I sing, the more it fogs up. It makes it a little harder to see and interact. But for the most part we just try to laugh it off and try to move forward in spite of it.”

Getting to know music therapy

Luke is turning 13 toward the end of May and has been at Sanford Medical Center Fargo since April 3. He has spina bifida, a birth defect that complicates treatment for his appendicitis. But he has vowed to be home in Fessenden, North Dakota, in time to celebrate being a teenager.

In the meantime, he has gotten to know Mitchell and her guitar.

“It’s pretty different,” he said. “On the radio, you can’t really hear a lot of a song, but when someone like Anna comes into your room and plays it, I really like listening.”

Amid the parade of caregivers who visit his room, Mitchell was the only one who also had a guitar. It was a lot to take on initially.

“Anna explained what her new job was and that he should enjoy that adventure with her,” Stephanie said. “At first Luke was a little hesitant. I think with anyone, that would be the case right away. But Anna just said she’d come back later.”

Her visits have, since then, become a favorite part of the day.

“Anna’s music has brought a new relaxation for us here,” Stephanie said. “It’s made us comfortable — we feel safe. She’s lifted a lot of weight off our chests by giving us that warm, fuzzy feeling. She’s a private concert every time she visits his room.”

Playing a vital role

Professional training and certification, along with musical talent and an ability to make people feel comfortable, is all part of a career as a music therapist.

Genuine concern for others is another trait Mitchell shares with all those Sanford Health caregivers who don’t take a guitar with them from room to room.

It goes without saying that the call for these qualities is amplified while pandemic circumstances restrict patients’ access to the comfort of loved ones.

“It’s extremely important that we have a program for music therapy here,” Mitchell said. “For me to come in and play music for those patients is bringing something to them that might feel familiar. It might be a song or a style of music that can normalize that environment a little bit. It’s always a goal for us in music therapy, but right now it’s a huge goal for us because nothing feels normal right now.”

Mitchell recently paid a visit to a young child who was getting a cast removed from his leg. The procedure included replacing the old cast with a new one. It also included an anxious youngster.

The solution? Send in Mitchell to play her guitar and sing while caregivers were trading casts.

“He was able to lay calmly in bed with his mother next to him because we were all listening closely to the music,” Mitchell said. “Those moments are amazing.”

Learning via challenges

Mitchell is not a smartphone. She does not have in her brain digital access to every song in the world. When someone wants to hear a song she has never played before, she has to learn to play it. Being well versed in many styles, genres and types of music is required for being a music therapist, and though that can be difficult at times, Mitchell embraces that part of her work.

“If I’m not familiar with a song, I’ll play it on a loop on my headphones,” she said. “Then I’ll try to play along with it and learn it that way. … Some of my patients have really enjoyed challenging me every day. They’ll say, ‘How about tomorrow, can you have this?’ And I’m ready for tomorrow. … I keep them organized on an app on my iPad so that I can keep them all with me. Then I can make playlists. I have a country playlist for Luke, for instance, so I know the songs he really likes and can access them quickly.”

It’s easy to conclude music therapy was created for people like Anna Mitchell. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, the marriage of talent and caregiving represents a valuable partnership for Sanford Health and its patients.

“I know there are tough days with every job — good days and bad days,” she said. “But knowing your role in how to assist with procedure support, or helping with anxiety, or normalizing a hospital environment during an abnormal time — it all reminds you that music can be a positive part of life for a patient. That’s true even when they’re in a difficult situation.”

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Posted In Children's, COVID-19, Fargo, Sanford Stories