Schneider patients jam in new music therapy program

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A $100,000...

By Tien-Shun Lee

Wielding egg shakers, rattles and bells, young patients, parents and hospital staff joined musical therapist Glenn Schifano in a “jam session” last Thursday to launch a music therapy program at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park.

A $100,000 grant from Geri and Eric Fessler, whose daughter was greatly helped by music therapy before she died of a brain tumor at age 5 in 1985, enabled the hospital to hire Schifano as a full-time music therapist for at least 2 1/2 years.

“It’s really a dream come true to do this,” said Schifano, who studied music therapy at Malloy College in Rockville Center, L.I. and New York University in Manhattan. “They’ve never had a full-time music therapist before.”

With guitar in hand, Schifano led the small room full of staff, parents and youngsters, some of whom were attached to IVs or oxygen machines, in singing “You’ve got to shake your sillies out,” “I am a pizza” and “Kumbaya.”

Eva Ssengendo, 22, who came from Uganda to Schneider Children’s Hospital with her mother three months ago to be treated for a bowel condition, said music therapy has helped her substantially during her stay at the hospital.

“Especially when I’m in rough spirits, it’s really helped me a lot,” Ssengendo said. “I don’t think I would’ve survived if it wasn’t for music.”

Ssengendo is being treated at a children’s hospital because her doctor, whom she found on the Internet, specializes in children but also has adult patients.

Ssengendo said Schifano usually visits her once a day in her hospital room, bringing with him a selection of songs to sing.

“I choose songs that lift my spirits up,” she said.

The music therapy program is part of the hospital’s Child Life Program, which also includes art therapy, pet therapy, story time and playroom hours.

“Music makes you come together and feel good about yourselves and each other,” said Joan Alpers, the coordinator of the Child Life Program.

Schifano said the idea behind music therapy is to use music to reach non-musical goals, such as stimulation and healing.

“We use singing to exercise lungs, song-writing activities and lyric analysis to explore issues,” he said. “I usually use rain sticks, wind chimes, drums, stuff that everybody can play.”

Before coming to work for Schneider Children’s Hospital, Schifano interned in the pediatric department at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan and at Ozanam Hall, a Bayside nursing home. No person is too young or old to be helped by music therapy, he said.

According to Alpers, it was the Children’s Medical Fund of New York that connected the Fesslers with Schneider Children’s Hospital. Geri Fessler is the president of the Women’s Division of the Children’s Medical Fund, which has been a longtime financial supporter of the Child Life Program at the hospital.

Also present at the event was John Beltzer, the president of Songs of Love, a non-profit organization that creates personalized songs for seriously ill children based on a profile sheet which asks about the child’s favorite food and pet, among other interests.

After the jam session, Beltzer and Schifano visited Nora Zuniga, a young patient who had undergone a bone marrow transplant at the hospital. Schifano said at one point during her hospital stay, a “Song of Love” composed for Zuniga had caused her to snap out of a coma-like state.

“Her mom was crying and she was laughing,” Schifano said. “This is the medicine of music.”

More information about Songs of Love can be found on the organization’s Web site,, or by calling 1-800-960-SONG.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 229-0300, ext. 155.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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