A few days before Christmas, Wyatt Morrison’s room is decorated with traditional décor of the holiday season.
There’s a small tree in the corner, a few toys spread out. Hand-colored pictures and cards, a wrapped gift.
It’s not the place the 4-year-old knows best, though. The room at Wolfson Children’s Hospital has been home for just more than three weeks as he enters the first phase of chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.
On this afternoon, it’s time for a visit from a music therapist — but not the intern he’s come to know the past several weeks.
It’s a new face and a couple of journalists, causing Wyatt to bury his head in his pillow and stuffed animal.
Katie Goforth begins strumming her guitar.
“Hell-o, Wy-att,” she softly sings. “Hell-o, Wy-att. Hell-o, Wy-att, it’s nice to see you today.”
Wyatt isn’t having any of it just yet. He keeps hiding from the visitors, as his mother, Kayla, sits at his bedside.
“Should we sing about Old MacDonald, mom?” Goforth asks, receiving an enthusiastic response — just not from Wyatt.
So Goforth pulls out the musical instruments. A brightly colored lollipop drum and a plastic rainbow-colored rain stick.
But even they aren’t enough to entice the young patient to join in.
“If you just want to listen today, you can,” Goforth said.
Then she goes into singing about farm animals and the noises they make.
Most children in the hospital warm up fairly quickly to Goforth, Wolfson’s board-certified music therapist for the past two and a half years.
It’s a career that combines her two passions — music and the desire to work with children. For the children, it’s a chance to concentrate on something other than the pokes and prods that come from doctors and staff.
The children pick up on that. Kayla Morrison says her son recognizes the uniform colors of the people who enter the room.
And while staff is always there to help, it can hurt sometimes. Needles, IVs, tests.
Not when Goforth comes in. It’s just music and a welcome distraction.
“I’m the good guy,” Goforth jokes.
Managing fears and pain through music
Goforth isn’t an entertainer. And she certainly isn’t the Guitar Lady.
She uses music to help Wolfson patients reach nonmusical goals. On the psychological side, that can mean making what children see as a scary hospital environment a little friendlier or keeping them socially active and their brains stimulated.
On the physical side, it can help with pain management by becoming a welcome distraction or helping them cope and relax.
For younger children, it can be as simple as nursery rhymes or ABCs. The kids can take part, too, by playing instruments from the box she totes around the hospital halls.
“The goal is getting them to do this,” she says as she slowly beats the lollipop drum. “Some will bang, others do it quietly … as long as they are participating, that’s OK.”
Whatever can keep them engaged and take their minds off the world around them for a bit.
It’s patient-preferred music, which means anything from country, hip-hop, pop and more. They ask for it, she’ll play it — if she knows it, of course.
Sometimes Goforth will teach them a little piano or keyboard to keep them even more engaged.
A jam session, of sorts.
‘Roar’ helps teenager get mind off pain
When Goforth enters Carla Smith’s room, the teen looks up and slightly smiles.
The 16-year-old was having a birthday on Christmas, but would spend the double celebration at the hospital she’s been in for myriad reasons. She was to have her gall bladder taken out in the next couple of days, the latest setback.
On this day, she’s in pain. On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10, she said. But she wants her music time.
“Let’s see if we can get that down,” Goforth says. “Country or pop?”
Pop it is, with the first selection being a popular Katy Perry tune, although Goforth apologizes for her voice not being up to par.
As she strummed the chords to Perry’s “Roar,” Smith perks up some. As Goforth sings, Smith mouths some of the words as she looks down at an IV coming from her arm that’s blown and causing more pain.
Smith’s mom, Rachel, went to look for a nurse while the two moved on to another pop song. This time, Smith was smiling a little more and bobbing her head to the words.
The loud beeps from her machines interrupted the next tune, Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” For that one, Smith’s voice grew louder as she sang and she fidgeted with the IV.
Then came the most enthusiasm from the 30-minute session. Holiday time means holiday music and what’s been more popular than Disney’s “Frozen”? Nothing, as Goforth showed with a simple question.
“Do you want to build a snowman?” she asked.
“Yeah!” Smith enthusiastically cried.
It was her favorite movie — she doesn’t remember how many times she’s seen it — and she sang almost every word, her voice higher than on any other song.
A couple songs later and it was time for Goforth to leave. She sees Smith two to three times a week.
“When I’m not sick, I get up and dance to it,” Smith said. “I’m a good dancer.”
There wasn’t any dancing this day, but Goforth accomplished her goal.
Smith said her pain level was down to an eight.
“She gets my mind off everything for a few minutes,” she said.
Another goal achieved.
Trading biology for music therapy
Music always was a part of Goforth’s life growing up in Chattanooga. It came from her mother’s side.
Her grandfather — “Pa Duck” to her — was a band director who played stand-up bass. Her grandmother a saxophonist.
Mom played the oboe and Goforth’s younger sister the cello.
It’s just that side of the family, though.
“Dad can’t carry a tune to save his life,” she said.
Goforth plays violin, but only because her hands were too small to cover the oboe keys.
She attended a musically inclined magnet school where she played in the orchestra and youth symphony.
She headed to Western Kentucky University on a music scholarship then to Florida State University for graduate school.
Music, she said, always has been her therapy. She thought she wanted to do something in the medical field, but midway through college decided biology wasn’t for her. She learned about music therapy — a mix of music and psychology. It was a natural fit, as she could use her talents in a medical environment.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, there are more than 5,000 board-certified music therapists in the workforce in areas like health agencies, rehabilitation center, day-care facilities, nursing homes and more.
For Goforth, 30, Wolfson has been a “dream job” she’s been able to grow. She’s expanded the program’s reach to many areas of the hospital and continually teaches interns of the profession and allows them to have hands-on experience.
On a busy week, she can see up to 50 patients. While not a medical professional, she has to know about treatments, symptoms and diagnoses.
The final sessions can be a swing of emotions.
There are those children who get better. They beat it. It’s time to go home.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, it’s bereavement, something she and staff frequently deal with.
She recalls one particularly tough session with a child, about 3 years old, knowing the young patient wasn’t going to live much longer.
But as she tells her interns, they have to be the rock. If they can’t hold it together, don’t go in.
When it gets tough, Goforth said the best response for her is to go on the other patients and help them.
Most times, the children greet her with a big smile and are ready and willing to participate. But sometimes, the kids aren’t up to it. They’re tired or in too much pain. If they don’t want to participate, it’s OK.
“I never take it personal,” she said.
Sometimes a second chance is what it takes to break through — even with tough cookies like Wyatt.
Patience pays off, Wyatt is having fun
After 10 minutes or so, Goforth’s efforts with Wyatt still aren’t working.
The shakers, the lollipop, not even “Old MacDonald” is helping him come out from hiding.
Kayla Morrison said in addition to leukemia, Wyatt has a high-functioning form of autism. He had just taken medicine. And he doesn’t respond well to sudden changes — this is Goforth’s first session with a couple of strangers in tow.
A change in plans midway through the session. She goes in alone to get him acclimated and introduce herself.
Five minutes or so later, Wyatt’s banging on a lollipop drum, grinning ear to ear as Goforth singsthe chorus to “Jingle Bells” while strumming chords. Next up, “Frosty the Snowman” with mom on the noisemakers.
Now Wyatt is fully engaged.
“I think music does something for everybody, no matter how old or young,” Kayla Morrison said. “It brings a smile to his face. All the time, people are in here poking or prodding or touching … they are here just to make him happy.”
And for Wyatt’s finale, it’s back to a favorite: Old MacDonald and his farm of animals. A cow, a horse, a sheep, a duck — even a chicken.
“Cockadooadoo!” he belts out.
Afterward, he helped put the instruments away, stayed in sight and showed off his new stuffed animal.
He was into it, his mind off the world around him for a few minutes.
For Goforth, another goal achieved.