There’s not a lot of pleasure in Gwendolyn Ihm’s young life. Just 2 1/2, she has been hospitalized, on and off, since she was 2 months old. A stay can last for eight weeks at a time.
So Gwennie and her parents have become pretty well accustomed to the surroundings of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Schneider Children’s Hospital. The unit is cheerful in décor and staffed by caring professionals. Still, it's a stressful place for the Ihms of Sound Beach in Suffolk County, as they wait for the transplant they hope with allow Gwendolyn to begin living as a normal pre-schooler.
But there’s one person who causes this sweet little girl’s face to light up on approach. “When she spots Pam, Gwennie yells out her name — with excitement and joy,” says dad, Brian, of Pam Carlton, the full-time music therapist at Schneider. An accomplished musician and board certified in music therapy, it is Carlton’s job to provide stimulation, enjoyment, support, and the human touch to young patients hospitalized for procedures ranging from broken legs to cancer treatment. The concept is simple, yet profound. “We provide,” she says, “music that heals.”
Whether that’s initiating a rollicking sing-along among kids with plastered limbs, or murmuring soft lullabies to the tiniest of newborns, “music is a way to give kids a voice in a place where they may not be able to find a voice,” Carlton explains.
Hospitals can be fearful places for kids — even those without serious illnesses. “Hopefully, I can create a more normal environment,” says Carlton. “If a child is nervous and afraid, then suddenly recognizes a song, it helps give them some normalcy.”
On a daily basis, Schneider doctors are performing complex, life-threatening surgeries. It's not uncommon for Pam Carlton to be offering support to distraught parents as well as young patients.
“It’s so painful to see what some parents must go through,” she says.
Carlton works throughout the medical center, sometimes in palliative care, with dying children. “I still play and sing for them,” she insists, “even if they’re unconscious. Because I believe they’re hearing me.”
When a child is hospitalized for long periods, close bonds are formed with the families. Carlton has been asked to play at funerals — which helps her process her own grief, she acknowledges. At other times, Carlton relies on a supportive group of musician friends with whom she plays violin in improv classical concerts.
And she always avoids using the word ‘terminal’ — “because you just never know,” she says, explaining that she has indeed seen miracles happen.
Carlton plays violin, keyboard, guitar and drums. For special areas, she brings along special instruments. In the bone marrow unit, all her instruments must be thoroughly washed down and disinfected before and after each visit. And she has found some creative solutions along the way. African drums are generally made with goatskin heads and tree trunk bodies; she was able to find a drum with an easily cleanable fiberglass body and a synthetic head for use in the critical care units.
Schneider’s world-class neonatal intensive care unit is where Carlton visits without her instruments, offering instead what she calls her “low impact music” that seems to blend into the quiet air of the dimly-lit rooms filled with tiny sleeping infants.
Carlton exudes warmth. Colleagues describe her as “a caring and very special person.” She came to her profession circuitously. She grew up in Wellesley, MA; her father was a singer and conductor, and her mother a concert pianist. “My bedroom was over the piano in the living room and I would hear my mother practicing till 3 or 4 in the morning,” she recalls. At age 4, she was sitting at the piano, and by 9 learning the violin. In high school, she was entering competitions and playing with Boston area orchestras.
Then came a period of music rebellion when she dropped out of college and became a flight attendant. This lasted 27 years. But while rejecting a professional music career, she continued to play the piano, and in the flexible hours of her airline job, played with various symphonic ensembles.
At age 43, she was lured back to college when a friend urged her to consider music therapy; she enrolled in the four-year program at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, one of the leading music therapy programs in the country. She stayed on Long Island and worked first with at-risk teens at Brunswick Hospital psychiatric facility in Amityville. “It was so difficult,” she recalls. “I would go home every night crying. I had been teaching Music Together classes for years and I knew I really wanted to work with young children.” The job came up at Schneider a year ago, and Carlton feels she has finally found her perfect niche.
“Yes, it’s a challenging job,” she says. “Every morning, I ask for strength to get me through the day. But it is so rewarding.
“I’m not religious, but I have a very strong spiritual support in my life. This is what helps me see the bigger picture.”