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Sponsored by Franciscan Children's

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

The healing power of music

At Franciscan Children’s, where complex medical conditions are routine, the day always seems brighter when the instruments come out and, for kids like Kevin, songs become therapy.

It’s a frigid, icy morning outside the long, tan brick building with the bright blue awning and white steeple that sits a few blocks from the Green Line in Brighton. But inside, where it’s not even 9 a.m., the hallways of Franciscan Children’s are warm with smiles and shout-outs, as children pushing walkers and in motorized wheelchairs are treated like celebrities by caregivers still nursing their morning coffees.

Down one long corridor, behind the door to a small room, the yellow and blue walls are lined with drums, pianos, and xylophones, and the floor pulsates with the 1980s hit, “Eye of the Tiger.” Music is more than an activity here. It’s treatment. Wearing a gray and red striped sweater, a sweet-natured, fragile boy with a tube protruding from his throat bangs away on a keyboard, tilts his head back, and laughs.
Where simple acts are monumental breakthroughs

Kevin Nascimento, 13

In a city filled with world-class pediatric care it’s easy to overlook one small, nondescript institution named for the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, and opened in 1949. But the story of Kevin Nascimento, a 13-year-old Brazilian boy from Everett, shows why Franciscan Children’s is as vital to this city’s community of healing as any hospital here.

This is a place where the most ordinary, humdrum acts—eyes blinking, a tongue sticking out, or a single step forward—are celebrated as life-changing milestones. Because they are.

It’s estimated there are 3 million children with medical complexities in the country, according to the Children’s Hospital Association, a figure that’s rising five percent a year. These are children suffering major, chronic conditions affecting two or more body systems, or one single dominant chronic condition. These are the hardest of the hard cases, and yet spending a day at Franciscan Children’s somehow leaves a visitor inspired, not sad.

“You walk in and see the courage of the kids,” says Franciscan CEO John Nash. “They’re resilient, adaptable, and inspiring. We see it as our duty to help them maximize their potential.”

A group therapy session at Kennedy Day School.

But Nash acknowledges the challenges Franciscan Children’s is facing: The number of complex cases is rising thanks to medical advancements allowing more children to be saved. All of Franciscan’s beds are filled, and it’s just not possible to turn a cramped, 70-year old building into a modern facility designed and equipped for the digital age. “It’s very much a priority for the organization,” Nash said. “We don’t really have a choice. The building has to be replaced.”

He feels a sense of urgency and responsibility running a place like Franciscan Children’s, because these are no ordinary children. “Nobody else does what we do, as well as we do,” Nash says.

Take Kevin. With complex medical and developmental conditions, including hydrocephalus (water on the brain), he has a lifetime of round-the-clock care in front of him. He requires a ventilator when he sleeps, a feeding tube to eat, and a valve that helps him speak a few words at a time. He walks with crutches, wears orthotics on both legs, and needs a wheelchair for longer distances.

And yet, in the hallways of Franciscan Children’s, which treats 12,000 children a year, he blends right in.

This is where a baby born to a drug addicted mom comes, or a child who suffered permanent brain damage from a horrific fall, or, in increasing numbers, a teenager hell-bent on taking their own life. Suicides are now the second-leading cause of death among teenagers—second only to accidents—which explains why there is rarely an empty bed among the 32 Franciscan Children’s has for children with acute mental health needs.

If Boston’s other hospitals save young lives, Franciscan sustains those lives, with a staff that focuses not on what these children can’t do, but what they can. Some children come a few days a week, some stay for a month or two, others arrive as infants and spend the majority of their days here until they turn 22.

When the future Cardinal of Boston, Archbishop Richard Cushing, founded the hospital in 1949, his vision was to create a welcoming place for the most physically disabled children, no matter their religion, race, or financial means. Over the years Franciscan Children’s has forged ties with McLean Hospital, for children with mental health needs; Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine; New England Center for Children, a leading autism education facility; and Berklee College of Music for music therapy.

Today, with more than 30 physicians, 100 nurses, and 112 beds, Franciscan combines the care of any world-class hospital with the warmth of a neighborhood health center, where every face is familiar, every milestone is celebrated, and where art and music are threads tying the day together.

Music’s healing influence

Kevin lived his first four years at Franciscan. He was discharged in 2008 and has been enrolled at the hospital’s Kennedy Day School ever since.

“When he doesn’t come to school, he’s very, very sad,” Kevin’s mother, Elizangela DaFonte, says through an interpreter. “He was here four years without going home, so his whole life is wrapped around Franciscan.”

Like all children here, Kevin is treated like a Red Sox player spotted on Newbury Street. His name is shouted out, he trades high-fives with teachers, and when he steps into the music room, one of his music therapists, Lyle Shaw, bounds over to him.

Kevin loves music. The faster the beat, the better. “He loves to dance,” his mother says. “I know for sure he loves Brazilian music.”

Along with Shaw, a Berklee alum, Kevin is greeted by another Berklee student, Brandon Hassan, who is majoring in music therapy.

Kevin, Brandon Hassan, and Lyle Shaw rock out at Franciscan’s Kennedy Day School.

The three of them sit, with Lyle on piano, Brandon on drums, and Kevin on keyboards. As their jam session begins, Kevin taps his feet, sways his head, and mouths a few key words to the songs they play. He plucks, shakes, and taps whatever instrument is placed in front of him, punctuating songs with the last word.

His mother says the way Franciscan has nurtured Kevin, with music and more, has not only changed him—it’s affected their entire family. “He has taught us the meaning of life,” she says.

The Greek philosopher Plato considered music to be “medicine of the soul.” But it wasn’t until World War II when musicians played for wounded veterans with emotional or physical trauma that the idea for music therapy took hold.

Today, studies have shown that music directly impacts the blood flow in certain regions of the brain and can bring about real emotional and physical rewards. Music as a form of therapy has evolved from quirky to mainstream: In the U.S. there are 6,000 credentialed music therapists, roughly 1,000 of them working in medical settings, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

Two students, learning from each other

Each room at the Kennedy Day School has a multi-sensory symbol next to its entrance, so children who might not be able to recognize it from the hallway can touch this object and know where they are. Outside the music room is an orange maraca.

The hallways are filled with heartfelt letters and drawings from parents, talking about what Franciscan means to them and to their children. “We love you from your nose to your toes. We love you from your knees to the trees,” reads one.

It’s difficult to walk the halls, sandwiched by dozens of letters on both sides, and not feel as if the story of every child who has passed through somehow lives on here.

And in a city that prides itself on music, healthcare, and education, two vital institutions partnering around music therapy makes perfect sense. Franciscan has children who respond powerfully to music. Berklee has talented musicians studying how music and therapy are intertwined, a lesson Brandon Hassan learned early on in his studies.

Brandon hopes to move patients with his music.

“I loved performing on stage,” he says of growing up in Irving, Texas. “But in a clinical setting, you’re moving someone.” He recalled working with his first patient and being struck by how profoundly music influenced the patient—and himself. “He began focusing more. He’d get all his energy out and became more focused.”

On one morning when Brandon arrives at Franciscan, he spots Julie Zigo and rushes over to hug her. A music therapist at the Kennedy Day School, Julie also teaches at Berklee.

When Kevin arrives, smiling like always, Julie takes her seat at the piano, sets a Yamaha keyboard in front of him, and starts playing their favorite song. He places his fingers on the keys and starts tapping.

“Well hello to Kevin,” she sings slowly. “How. Are. You?”

“Hello to Julie,” he answers. “How. Are. You?”

Brandon, after several more meetings with Kevin, returns in late March to play a song he’s written about him. Kevin, in a blue plaid shirt, sits down in front of a keyboard while Brandon holds a guitar. Brandon starts strumming fast, singing an upbeat folk song about a boy who loves soccer and volleyball, and loves to “shred the keys.” Kevin beams. He finds the beat with Brandon, sweeping his fingers down the keyboard for the occasional glissando.

Later, as Kevin’s excitement peaks, Brandon winds down his song. “And if you asked us we’d say, music makes a wonderful day.”


To hear the full song Brandon wrote for Kevin, watch him play it here:

Or listen to it here.

To learn more about children like Kevin and the services that Franciscan Children’s provides, please visit

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.