Thursday, December 1, 2011
Doctors didn’t think a 32-year-old survivor of a brainstem stroke could even hear, much less respond to the world around her. She’d lost all mobility, except for blinking, and her voice. But Seaside’s Cathy Rivera, a music therapist, patiently plucked a guitar and sang to her paralyzed client for years, until she developed enough strength in her hand to play chords and keep time with a metronome.
“This is someone everyone else walked away from,” Rivera says. Five years later, the woman’s learned to type and is writing a book about her life.
There’s a language to music, and while Rivera is fluent in its neurology (“Within two or three regular intervals, our brain latches onto rhythm”), she retains a reverence for its enduring humanity (“Music has been with us since before fire”).
Working in an ancient tradition is a change for Rivera, who spent most of her career launching Summit Plant Laboratories, a nematode-resistant potato-cloning business she ran for 17 years in Fort Collins, Colo. – then sold her interest to pay for another degree.
She’d planned to pursue a doctorate in botany, but the exhilarating early days of independent genetic engineering were over. “It had been taken over by corporate interests,” Rivera says. Instead she was drawn to music therapy, thinking “Human behavior sounds juicy.”
Rivera’s graduate thesis work ultimately stunned even her. She measured cortisol, a hormone produced by stress and anxiety, in saliva samples from high-risk adolescents. Their preferred music was a genre she’s never listened to before, hip hop, but it correlated with reduced cortisol levels.
“It was an emotional and psychological renaissance for me,” says Rivera, 59.
Now, she works with a variety of clients: hospice patients, autistic children or stroke survivors struggling to speak, and Parkinson’s and M.S. sufferers.
At a Parkinson’s support group at the Sally Griffin Center in Pacific Grove, 10 seniors sing along to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as Rivera strums a 36-string autoharp. After 20 minutes, the group is up and about, serving each other juice and muffins. Minutes earlier such a task would’ve been messy for many of them, whose shaky hands took 15 minutes to sign in.
Rhythm, Rivera explains, can substitute for a brain’s malfunctioning timekeeper. A 72-year-old Salinas man who suffers from Parkinson’s hired Rivera to help him navigate his house, where narrow hallways, closets and the shower tripped him up. Now, with ragtime in the background, he can turn around to exit the closet instead of trudging dangerously backward. “I couldn’t do that before,” he says.
The positive results are so convincing that Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad refers mentally ill inmates to a California Department of Mental Health program where songwriting, drumming and lyric analysis are helping them manage anger. Inmates suffering from schizophrenia, depression or other conditions – even socially withdrawn “cave dwellers,” in prison parlance – work with music therapists in a high-security environment.
“Just from a safety standpoint it makes sense,” says A. Chapman, a rehabilitation therapist. “They are less likely to become aggressive.”
For inmates who have struggled to advance in traditional therapy, drumming can be a fast track to emotional intelligence and anger management. “They came into this very resistant,” Chapman says. “Now we’ve been running a [rock] band for six months and they try to practice any time they can, and get together as a group in the yard – people of all ages, walks of life, colors.”
Some of Rivera’s hospice clients are nonverbal, leaving her to ascertain music tastes by watching them subtly scrunch their faces to different songs.
“She’s an extraordinary artist, an extraordinary counselor,” says Victoria Rue, a spiritual care counselor with the Visiting Nurses Association Hospice of Salinas. Rue describes one patient in her 90s, who had been bedridden for more than a year. Though she had barely any strength in her hands, Rivera offered up bells that could be played with just gentle fingertip pressure.
“It opened a door that nothing else could,” Rue says.
Rivera, who charges $70 an hour for a one-on-one, hopes a local institution takes up coursework and credentialing – the nearest program today is in Stockton. A generation of homegrown music therapists could improve acceptance of the field – which would be music to her ears.
Learn more at 915-7260 or MusicMindMusicTherapy.com