MESA, Ariz. — Aria Anderson risked years of misfortune when she opened her sock monkey umbrella inside her hospital room during a late morning in January. She did so to hide from the group of strangers who came to see her, and the strategy proved effective; her unfurled shield more than covered the slight 6-year-old's frame.
The Chandler first-grader exhibited a hint of playfulness behind her umbrella — she poked her pig-tailed head out every so often — but her shyness shined far brighter. Her age alone wasn't the only factor for her reservations, as this was her fifth visit to Banner Children's Cardon Children's Medical Center in a six-month span. Complications from brain surgery led to the stays in the hospital, and her mom Tina said Aria started to hide in her shell due to the weeks spent away from home coupled with prodding tests.
Yet there were bright spots amid the treatments and tedium for Aria, including an untraditional therapy program the hospital uses to help children cope with pain that adds a little levity to the experience. For Aria, the treatment she received provided a vital reprieve during her repeated stays in the hospital.
"It's someone who's coming in, who's not going to poke them, and who's here to have fun," Tina said.
The treatment Aria received during her many stays at Cardon encompassed the different forms of integrative therapy, which are used by Cardon staff and staff at other hospitals like Phoenix Children's Hospital. They use different types of therapy — massage, pet, aromatherapy, acupuncture and other options — to aid in the healing process.
"All of these things teach kids coping skills they can use for the rest of their lives," said Cardon Pain Management Team Manager Teri Reyburn-Orne.
It's a pretty valuable skill to learn early in life given how much pain people will endure throughout their lives. According to the National Institutes of Health, pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined, and treatment for pain is the most common reason why people seek medical treatment. It's also a major contributor to the country's health-care costs, and approximately 76 million people had suffered through pain that lasted for more than 24 hours in 2006.
A key way to cope with constant pain is to find distractions that pull a person's focus away from it. In Aria's case, the pain treatment featured massage therapy and music therapy, with the two intersecting with each other.
After putting away her umbrella, the monkey enthusiast — the rain shield was accompanied by monkey jammies, dolls and other simian-related items — got right into her music therapy with Angela Wibben. The experience was kind of a jam session, with Aria playing around with maracas and a kazoo and Wibben playing a couple of Aria's favorite tunes. She strummed her guitar alongside a rendition of the "Gummy Bear Song" on YouTube, as well as a parody of Ylvis' "The Fox" (aka "What Does the Fox Say?") called "What Does the Kid Say?" They even took a few minutes to sing a song Aria wrote herself, a ditty she created with heavy simian influence.
As Wibben got into her routine with Aria, massage and Reiki therapist Cynthia Zimmerman gave Aria a rubdown around her neck and upper back that provided a strong complement to the musical therapy.
"It's a normalization of the hospital environment, that kids can be kids," Wibben said of the experience.
Everything Aria underwent during that treatment and others not only created a feeling of normality in a troublesome environment, but it relaxed her. The combination, Orne said, can decrease anxiety and discomfort, which can decrease the amount of pain a patient feels. The therapies can also complement prescribed medication or even replace it depending on a child's respective situation.
"When they relax, the medication actually works better," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said her methods, which she described as a gentle touch that can relax muscles, is akin to a mild hypnosis and can reduce pain, nausea, muscle aches and even stomach problems among patients. Wibben's methods, conversely, focus on the psychological effects related to pain by engaging a child with a song that's uplifting and happy in nature.
The end result is a complex way of dealing with what Orne described as a complex feeling, and she said the science behind the treatment is indicating treatments that encompass traditional and therapeutic methods lead to the best outcome for patients.
"The research is getting so much more specific into what is causing pain and what can help pain," she said.
One of the major proponents for Cardon's integrative therapy program is Kelle Whitehead, whose son, Blake, received music therapy during his time in the hospital. There wasn't an indication of what would happen to Blake when he was born in 2004 - he was about as healthy as a kid could be - but his health took the proverbial turn for the worse right before his 20th month.
Doctors diagnosed Blake with leukemia, and Kelle said her son fought for three months before succumbing to the disease.
It was a painful time for the family - Kelle said they made it home maybe once or twice during that three-month span - but one thing that made the experience a little easier to bear were the music therapy sessions. Those sessions helped solidify the family's faith - many of the songs performed by the therapist were the same as those performed in the family's church - and the sessions were one of Blake's favorite things to do.
"The one time he acted like a child was during music therapy," she said. "All the other times it was stressful and painful."
The music therapy had such a profound effect, the Whitehead family created a foundation to support it. Called Blake's Miracle Foundation, the organization has sponsored a room in the hospital and raises money to donate to Cardon's integrative therapy program through the annual SWIM-Kid-a-thon, hosted by SWIMkids USA, and features raffles, train rides, a cake walk and lots of swimming and floating among participants. This year's event is scheduled for March 1, and more information is available at www.blakesmiracle.org.
In the eight years since Blake's death, the foundation has donated approximately $220,000 to the medical center in honor of the Whiteheads' departed son.
"In a short 23 months he touched more people than I could in a lifetime," Kelle said.
As the therapy session advanced the care Aria felt for the interlopers diminished and she became more and more involved with the music coming from Wibben's guitar and Aria's iPad. There was a song to say goodbye still to come — "See you later, alligator ... after a while, crocodile" — as well as the conclusion of Zimmerman's massage session for Aria and even Tina.
The treatment Aria received that January morning came shortly before she returned to her own room, her own bed, to her 8- and 10-year-old siblings, and her complete collection monkey paraphernalia. Tina's hope was for this to be the last time the family would book an extended stay at Cardon.
What made the experience somewhat tolerable for the family, Tina said, were those therapy treatments that offered a reprieve from the quotidian routines a hospital offered. What Wibben and Zimmerman offered was, in essence, a way for Aria to have fun during her recovery and let go of any fears that come from an extended hospital stay, at least for a little while.
"This is the stuff she tells her siblings when she gets to talk to them about making up songs and having fun," Tina said.