Music Therapy Helps Hospitalized Kids in Uganda

Moved by the plight of children in an African cancer clinic, an American teenager raises funds and travels back to Uganda to launch a new art and music therapy program.

When American teenager Maggie Berry first visited a hospital in rural Africa two years ago, she noticed that children recuperating from cancer surgery literally had nothing to do. In June 2015, she flew back to Uganda to establish an art and music therapy program that crosses cultural and language barriers.

Mass General music therapist Julio Gudino (top right) works with children and parents at the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital.
Mass General music therapist Julio Gudino (top right) works with children and parents at the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital.

To help the cancer clinic at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, Maggie, now 16, donated funding she had raised over several months.

Her work is part of a larger collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and the small Ugandan hospital, which is struggling to serve the health needs of a large rural population in a region with limited medical resources. She is participating as part of the Mass General Center for Global Health which has a year-round presence at the Mbarara hospital and university. Through this partnership, clinicians and supporters from both countries collaborate on training of healthcare professionals and research.

Focusing on the most vulnerable populations in dozens of countries, Mass General provides global leadership in clinical care, research, education and disaster response. Built on a strong humanitarian foundation, such efforts also produce skills, knowledge and innovation that benefit patients back home.

Life-Changing Journey

Maggie first visited Uganda in 2013 with her parents, who are philanthropic supporters of Mass General’s global health initiatives. At the Mbarara hospital, she was moved by the healthcare needs she witnessed among children recovering from surgery or undergoing cancer treatment. “The kids were sitting on the concrete floor with nothing to do,” she recalls. “They were fiddling with their thumbs or staring at the walls.”

Maggie came back to the United States determined to do something to brighten the lives of hospitalized children like those she had seen in Uganda.

Maggie came back to the United States determined to do something to brighten the lives of hospitalized children like those she had seen in Uganda. The idea of providing art and music therapy appealed to her. She previously had seen the soothing effect of music while working with small children at a music camp.

After speaking with the hospitals about her idea, Maggie set out to raise funds to cover the cost of materials, instruments and travel expenses for a Mass General music therapist to go to Mbarara.

Initially setting a fundraising goal of $7,000, Maggie began by reaching out to people on her parents’ Christmas card list. She then created a video highlighting her goals for the trip. Her multimedia push helped the effort gain momentum. By the time she and her father, Brett Berry, traveled back to Uganda in June 2015, she had raised $15,200. The money was enough to cover the cost of the art and music therapy program and contribute toward building an overnight ward for patients.

Teen Sees Hard Realities

Maggie chronicled her six-week journey to Uganda in her online blog. She described seeing dozens of Ugandans escorting family members to the regional hospital, a journey of up to 300 miles for some. Several children who visited the hospital appeared malnourished and Maggie saw nurses teaching mothers how to make nourishing meals from available foods.

Maggie Berry presents a check to the Mbarara Regional Hospital to fund art and music therapy plus an overnight ward.
Maggie Berry presents a check to the Mbarara Regional Hospital to fund art and music therapy plus an overnight ward.

“Going there previously had prepared me mentally and emotionally and I had a goal in mind,” Maggie says. “But there were moments when I couldn’t believe, this is how people live.”

“Maggie was very professional and well-prepared,” says Noortje Trienekens, the program manager in Uganda for the MGH Center for Global Health. “She did everything she could do before she got here to get the program set up.”

MGH music therapist Julio Gudino, who also made the trip, brought hand-held drums and other instruments that could be played without instruction. He also got children involved through hand-clapping and singing.

Music therapy helps patients because it provides them with an outlet that isn’t focused on their illness, he explains, adding that, “It really takes their attention away from what’s wrong and focuses on positive things.”

Music Therapy Works Magic

At one point, a nurse pulled Maggie aside to say she’d never seen so many of the children smiling.

The positive effects of the music on the children sustained Maggie. Once the music began, she saw adults peering through the window of the children’s room. At one point, a nurse pulled Maggie aside to say she’d never seen so many of the children smiling.

“Once Julio started, the kids just gravitated to him,” Maggie says. “That was a moment when the weight was lifted off my shoulders. I knew it was doing something for the children, that it made the kids happy.”

The program is continuing, Maggie says, by training and hiring a local resident, a cost covered by the funds she raised.

For more information or to donate to the Global Health Program in Uganda, contact us.