Bob Huffman of Dearborn will never forget the day he played his guitar for a baby girl and her parents in the moments before she passed away. As he quietly strummed his guitar, Huffman watched as her mom and dad read classic children’s books to their daughter – books they wouldn’t have the chance to read her again.
Being present for this child’s end-of-life transition was an honor he felt privileged to share. As lead music therapist for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Huffman brings music to a variety of patient rooms. With him is his ever-present guitar and a library of music stored almost entirely in his head.
On the job
Huffman has walked the halls of Mott for more than 10 years. While he’s recently shifted to helping adults at the cancer center, Huffman is a fixture at Mott’s Skyline Cafe Thursdays, entertaining kids and their families with his fellow music therapists during dinner.
Often, they head to hospital rooms at the request of a nurse who thinks a patient might benefit from their melodies. Huffman has visited many tiny patients in the neonatal intensive care unit – along with long-time patients whose conditions bring them to Mott regularly and who know “The Music Guy” by name.
However he ends up in front of his audience of typically one, he is prepared to play and even sing whatever the adult, child or situation calls for.
For kids, that might be “Old MacDonald,” Taylor Swift, country music classics or a song of his own creation.
“It depends on the age group,” Huffman says. “When the movie Frozen first came out, it was all about those songs for two years.”
When patients aren’t conscious, as is the case when they are intubated or still under anesthesia, Huffman quietly plays the instrumental version of a song with a watchful eye on the patient’s vital stats.
During his time as a music therapist, Huffman has witnessed some “pretty amazing” success. Once during a 30-minute session, he saw a patient’s heart rate drop continually per minute from 135 to 105.
Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate are all stats therapists watch as they perform, careful not to overstimulate young patients.
“Even when we’re not conscious, I still believe on some level, we can hear music,” Huffman says.
How music therapy works
Being cognizant of a patient’s physiological changes is something Huffman is trained to do as a certified music therapist. It’s a field with origins in post-WWI and WWII veterans hospitals, where care providers noticed physical and emotional improvements in patients after musicians played for them.
Like Huffman, all certified music therapists are required to pursue specific coursework in anatomy, physiology and psychology in addition to their music studies.
Huffman is the first to admit not every music therapy session results in a profound change in heart rate, blood pressure or respiration rate – and that sometimes, the person benefiting most is not even the patient.
“It can really benefit the parent or caregiver in the room, taking the tension out of a stressful situation at least temporarily.”
Huffman has lost count of how many times that when playing for patients, particularly in the intensive care units, he sees tears begin streaming down a parent’s face.
“Music gives this nonverbal permission for emotional release,” he says. “I see it quite often.”
Music’s healing abilities
Jennifer Canvasser, formerly of Ann Arbor, knows the power of Huffman’s music. In January 2012, her twin sons, Micah and Zachary, were born three months premature and spent significant time in Mott’s NICU. Initially, it was Zachary whose situation was more precarious. He was intubated and critically ill. When Huffman started to play, Canvasser noticed a positive change in Zachary’s heart and breathing rates – not to mention her own mental state.
“I could feel my body relax. Tears started flowing for no specific reason. The music moved me, and I was able to release some of my anxiety.”
Over time, Zachary’s condition improved dramatically, and he eventually was discharged. Unfortunately, Micah’s situation worsened, and he remained in the NICU before moving to the pediatric unit. Huffman followed, donning a mask and remaining in the room when the boy’s central line – an intravenous tube – had to be repaired. Canvasser recalls staff quickly ushering her out of the room and sterilizing it for a procedure.
Amid the commotion, Micah became visibly stressed. Huffman asked if he could stay in the room, and he played as doctors and nurses urgently went about their business. Outside Micah’s room, Canvasser could see the monitor and observed Micah’s heart and breathing rates relax.
Later, Huffman’s music enabled a moment that will be branded in Canvasser’s memory forever. For months, she had been unable to hold little Micah. When the day finally came, she danced with him in her arms as Huffman played The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
“Going from only being able to touch Micah’s hand or face to being able to dance with him, there are no words for that feeling,” she says.
So special was the bond between Huffman and the Canvasser family that when Micah passed away at 11 months, Huffman played at the boy’s end-of-life celebration.
The Canvassers went on to create the Micah Smiles Fund, which funds a music therapy fellowship at Mott.
“It is nothing short of magic to see how these therapists enrich patients’ lives,” Canvasser says.
Sometimes Huffman’s work goes above and beyond the hospital. He recalls with fondness a “make a wish” of sorts he helped set up for a teenage patient with cystic fibrosis.
Over the years, Huffman had worked with the young man and they’d jam together on their guitars. Toward the end of the teen’s life, Huffman arranged for a limo to take himself, the boy and the boy’s grandfather to a recording studio where the pair recorded a song. Huffman presented the family with the CD later.
“It was a great day,” Huffman says. “It was a legacy project.”
While Huffman acknowledges that his work presents many heavy moments, he truly enjoys what he does.
“Patients will come up to me a year or two later for a clinic appointment to say hi, and they’re doing great,” he says. “That’s the best part of my job.”
Micah Smiles Fund
This fund helps the C.S. Mott Music Therapy Program thrive. Visit mottchildren.org/giving/micah-smiles-fund to learn more and donate.
Photo: Music therapist Bob Huffman plays for Addysen Johns, of Roseville at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. Photo by Lauren Jeziorski.
This post was originally published in 2016 and is updated regularly.