“From one friend to another”

Shauna O’Carroll  looked into the state of music therapy in Australia for her  final semester journalism project. As part of her research, Shauna interviewed Liz and Una. Below is her article.

Music Therapy in Recovery, from one friend to another

Shauna O’Carroll

“Today I don’t feel like doing anything, I just want to lay in my bed…”

Liz Dawes sings the lyrics of the popular Bruno Mars song softly, a slight trembling in her voice.

“It was Connor’s song, we always used to tease him about and we would say to him ‘Oh Connor, you have your own song!’ It was a little bit of a joke ’” Liz says wistfully.

Connor was the firstborn child of Liz, a bright and quirky boy who played the saxophone, had Pi memorized up to 200 digits and loved learning Latin. He was starting his final year of high school, and had just been accepted into a college program at Stanford University, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Sixteen months later he passed away.

After his initial diagnosis, and a following surgery that resulted in Connor losing his right side movement and memory, a friend of Liz, Una Miller, suggested Music Therapy for Connor during his recovery.

“When he came out of surgery he was completely compromised on one side and his short term memory was gone, they were trying all sorts of things,” says Una.

“I did a psychology degree a million years ago, and I remembered that when people had a stroke and couldn’t talk, they could still sing. You have a music centre in your brain and it’s completely separate from the other areas, and I wondered if that was the case for those who have had a tumor, maybe this music area was still active.”

Una researched and found a music therapist who come once a week to the Dawes’s residence to sing and play music with Connor. It was a relaxing hour a week for Connor, where he was able to remember the words and sing along to his favourite songs, Lazy Song by Bruno Mars included.

“After a brain injury everything is hard, and music therapy was something relaxing, it was something he enjoyed,” says Liz.

“He was getting the benefits but it wasn’t like speech therapy or occupational therapy where it is more like work, it’s like going for a run versus having a massage, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

Music therapy became a bonding experience for the whole family, and every weekend the family would get together and sing, creating positive memories.

“We would sing our favourite songs and Connor’s favourite songs, my daughter would look up on the lyrics on the iPad and he just loved it, it was really nice,” Liz says emotionally, recalling the precious musical moments the family shared with Connor.

After Connor’s passing, Liz and her family decided to set up the Robert Connor Dawes Fund (RCD Fund) in memory of Connor. Based on Connor’s initials, the foundation is focused on Research, Care and Development, and is inspired by his spirit of Aeternum Fortis, Eternal Strength.

To share their positive music therapy experiences, Liz decided to set up ‘Music Matters Grants’, grants that offer 10 music sessions to children and young adults under the age of 25 who have been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“When Connor passed away and they wanted to set up the foundation that was one of the things she (Liz) wanted to dedicate a portion of the funds to, for others to have access to music therapy as part of their rehabilitation too,” says Una.

“To me we are trying to do things in Connor’s memory, honour and legacy, he played the saxophone in a band, the piano as a small child, he had such an appetite for music, he loved music, all kinds,” says Liz.

The grants provide families with their own experiences of music therapy, and Liz hopes that they can create the same happy memories that her family created through Connor’s recovery.

“It’s brought us in touch with families who are going through this, it’s sort of a sad and lonely road, but if you know people are out there you don’t feel so alone.”

“Personally it has been quite a rewarding thing to do,” says Una.

Seeing the change that grants have bought to lives of those accessing it has been a rewarding experience for Liz and her family, particularly in the case of a young family friend.

“There was a young boy, he doesn’t have brain cancer but he was in a terrible car accident and happened to be in our other sons’s year level,” says Liz.

It was only three days before Christmas in 2012 when Nick James was involved in a terrible car crash on the way home from a shopping centre.

Fighting for his life in hospital, Liz offered the ‘Music Matters’ grant to the James family for when Nick began his rehabilitation, with Nick himself being a music lover and keen guitar player.

“I have known Liz for a long time, my Nick and her son Nick have known each other for years, they played soccer together as little fellas,” says Jane James, Nick’s mother.

“It was something she offered to us when she heard about Nick’s accident, and she thought it would be a lovely thing for us to do when he got a bit better. He loves music, he plays the guitar, it would be something that might bring a bit of joy to his day.”

Music therapy for acquired brain injury is a relatively new field of music therapy, with research and studies assessing it’s use in reducing pain and emotional trauma and stimulating motor functions.

“In rehabilitation we work across the outcomes and physical outcomes as well as emotional adjustments and grief and loss,” says Dr. Jeanette Tamplin, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music Therapy at the University of Melbourne.

After being moved to his rehabilitation hospital in Melbourne, Nick started working with a young music therapist Ewan, who Jane says has helped Nick with his memory and has also improved his mental health.

“I think it has played a big part in his mental health afterwards. One of the biggest issues in brain injuries in young people is coming to terms with what ability they’ve got, we don’t know how long it will take Nick to recover or even if he will fully recover, but we are hopeful he will be able to look after himself, and get a job, but at this stage we still don’t know,” says Jane.

Dubbed “Prince Nicholas the Awesome” by his family and friends, Jane says she is amazed at how the music therapy has helped Nick with his memory, which has been ‘shocking’ since the accident.

“Ewan is only a few years older than Nick so they have a lot of laughs. They are currently writing a song with words that Nick has come up with and I find it quite interesting that Nick can remember the words to the song and the music they’re writing together. Whereas if you ask him what he had for breakfast, he can’t,” says Jane.

“So whether it’s because of something that he enjoys, or whether it’s that music operates in a different part of the brain, I am just not sure.”

The National Music Therapy Research Unit at the University of Melbourne has conducted numerous studies that have the explored the positive effects of songwriting for individuals with an acquired brain injury. A study in 2005 demonstrated that music therapy in the form of songwriting for acquired brain injury patients helped in organising their thought processes as well as providing an outlet for self-expression.

Dr. Tamplin is currently involved in a research project with the university, studying the effects of targeted songwriting for people who have acquired traumatic injury, focusing on the concept of self.

“Basically when someone has a traumatic injury like that it can challenge their sense of self and who they are, we do assessments on wellbeing and mood, quality of life, and self concept before and after,” says Tamplin.

Through music therapy, Liz and Jane have been connected further through their collective experiences.

“We talk about Connor, and we talk about Nick and as mums going through this journey, she spent a lot of time with Connor in various hospitals and rehab centres and she really understands where I am coming from,” says Jane.

As he continues his music therapy Jane is hoping that he will eventually be able to find his way back to his musical passions.

“We want to see if he can get the use back in both of his arms and hands so he can pick up the guitar again, I think that would be a huge benefit to him. But at this stage there is no way he could play,” says Jane.

Currently the grant is being accessed by eight children and young adults, and Liz is hoping the foundation can continue growing in the future, creating positive music therapy experience.

“Right now the music therapy grant is $1000 a child, so this year our goal was ten children, and next year it’s twenty,” says Liz.

“So we’ll just do as much as we can, no-one is paid, we are unique in that we are a charity where no-one is paid, everyone just donates their time and that really is different.”

Building a positive experience from a tragic one and seeing the difference it has made for other families is something that has been rewarding for Liz and Una in creating these grants for a beneficial therapy that is still little unknown in Australia.

“It’s a form of therapy that I would have never known about it myself, and unfortunately I have to find out about it through something so tragic but the young people that I have met who are practicing it as a therapy I have found absolutely wonderful, they just seem to me to be genuine souls, something deep within them has made them choose that path,” says Una.

“One little person, a little three year old, his mum is still driving a 5 hour round trip just to still have the music therapy, so something is definitely working there. I thought that was amazing. She’s such an amazing woman, she is determined that this is one thing in his little life that she wants to keep going.”

“People go to all lengths when they find something that is meaningful amongst it all.”