Rachel Gietzen, left, and her 7-year-old son, Carson, center, have benefited from a new program at Sanford Health in Bismarck that involves music therapy. On the right, Bobbi Jo Vandal, a music therapist at Sanford, sings a song she wrote with Carson.

Sanford Health in Bismarck has launched a new program in the hospital to help children heal through music and play.

In November, Sanford started the Child Life program thanks to funding from Sanford Health Foundation's "Above and Beyond" campaign.

The program, which also exists in Fargo and Sioux Falls, involves a child development specialist who works with children throughout the hospital, including in pediatric intensive care unit and at children's clinics. The specialist helps a child understand a diagnosis and prepare for a procedure, as well as plays with the child and provides support to their families.

Also, a music therapist who is part of the Child Life program plays music for anxious kids and sings lullabies to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"I've been doing pediatrics (at Sanford) for 21 years, and I've honestly seen such a transformation of our Children's Hospital since the incorporation of Child Life and music therapy," said pediatric Dr. Todd Twogood. "It's basically been one of the best things I've seen come to us in a long time."

Twogood gave an example of a 4-day-old baby at the hospital who needed an IV placed for hydration. Sanford's music therapist, Bobbi Jo Vandal, strummed the guitar and sang a lullaby to the baby, which calmed the baby.

Music therapy is "revolutionary to what we do," Twogood said.

Rachel Gietzen's 7-year-old son, Carson, has primary immune deficiency and has been receiving treatment at Sanford Health in Bismarck for the past year. Every three weeks, Carson has to go to the hospital for treatment, which includes an IV.

Gietzen said the child life specialist, Ashley Renton, and Vandal have made it easier for her son to get his IV treatment.

"It's helping really to reduce the anxiety that he feels when he comes to the hospital," Gietzen said.

Sanford Health in Bismarck also has launched the first medical music therapy program within the Sanford enterprise through hiring Vandal.

Vandal, a Bismarck native, attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study music therapy. She returned to Bismarck about three years ago and said she saw the need for a music therapy and began to work with Sanford administration.

Vandal said she and Renton work together to find the most appropriate interventions for children. Often, she's referred to work with kids who have anxiety or need help with speech or physical goals. With older kids, she'll help them write songs.

Hospital nursing staff also request Vandal to sing to babies in the NICU.

"With (preemies), they can be really fragile, so they have to be a certain gestational period for me to work with them; otherwise, it's too much stimulation," Vandal said. "But it's especially helpful for babies that are having withdrawal symptoms or need extra stimulation to help them get out into the world."

Vandal pointed to research that shows music therapy is beneficial to babies in the NICU. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013 found that music therapy can improve a preemie's breathing, heart rate and feeding.

While most work days are fun, Vandal said the job can be difficult in end-of-life situations or when a child is in pain. She also works with bereaving families by recording the child's heartbeat and making a song to go along with it.

The cost of Child Life program services to families is free, because it's funded by donations.

Kristi Schmidt, lead major gifts officer with the Sanford Health Foundation, said the organization needs to raise $1.5 million, which will be matched by Sanford Health to create a $3 million endowment to sustain the Child Life Program. On Wednesday, David Mason, of First International Bank and Trust, presented a $250,000 check for the program.

To learn more, visit www.sanfordhealthfoundation.org.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)