Music Therapist Creates Emotional Songs From the Heartbeats of Terminally Ill Children: 'It's a Way to Connect with Lost Ones'
"This intervention is a coping mechanism and a way for parents to remember their kids when they're gone," Schreck, 35, tells PEOPLE
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Music therapist Brian Schreck believes in the power of a heartbeat.
The 35-year-old Cincinnati Children’s Hospital hospice employee uses the rhythms of terminally ill children’s heartbeats to create songs for grieving parents – helping them to cope with the loss of their child.
“The heartbeat is a symbol of love,” Schreck, a Park Hills, Kentucky, resident, tells PEOPLE. “Creating these songs helps parents to remember their children, it’s an act of therapy. It’s a lovely way to connect with lost ones.”
Schreck, who works at StarShine Hospice and Pallative Care, records the heartbeats of terminally ill children with a stethoscope and a microphone, uploads it to his computer and works with parents to create original scores. He then collaborates with the entire family, often incorporating their own vocals/lyrics or their children’s favorite songs, creating personal sound bites that are synced with the rhythm of the heartbeat.
When the child dies, he gives the completed songs to the family.
“This intervention is a coping mechanism and a way for parents to remember their kids when they’re gone,” Schreck, who has created over 100 songs in the past two years, says. “It’s an honor to work with these patients on their journey. I’m really just trying to use anything I can creatively come up with to impact families positively during their hardest days.”
Schreck, a father of two, began creating “heartbeat songs,” for patients’ families after learning about the soothing qualities of the heartbeat rhythm while attending New York University, where he received a master’s degree in music therapy.
“Internal rhythm is so personal and I thought it could be used as a way to really help families feel connected to ones they’ve lost,” he says. “By having the parents engage in the creative process of making the songs, it brings them together, preparing them for the grief and the pain they may soon encounter.”
The father of two says he records the children’s heartbeats for 30 seconds, looking to get the most natural sound possible. Because the beats aren’t always steady, he takes bites from the recording and loops it on his computer to make a rhythmic pattern.
He then invites any familial members to join in on the creative process of making the song.
“If the mom or dad or brother or sister want to participate in playing an instrument or singing, I include that,” Schreck says. “Everything is up to the families. I’m just there to help them do whatever they think will work for them.”
Before Kelly Marsh-Welton’s 9-year-old daughter Natalia died from complications of a rare malignant brain tumor in 2014, Schreck worked extensively with her to create a heartbeat song.
The song, which was played at Natalia’s funeral, features Marsh-Welton’s cover of Mindy Gledhill’s “All About Your Heart,” set against her daughter’s heartbeat.
“Brian has an ear for things that most people don’t,” Marsh-Welton, a 31-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio, resident, tells PEOPLE. “I used to sing ‘All About Your Heart,’ as a lullaby to Natalia, so this was such a bittersweet tribute to her.”
The mother says she listens to the song all the time.
“It’s comforting, but bittersweet, like a little piece of her immortalized into sounds,” she says. “I m so grateful I have it.”
Marsh-Welton adds, “I’ll keep her heartbeat song with me forever. I’ll never stop missing her.”
I Hope to See the Day
Kiana and Artrez Carter of Cincinnati, Ohio, have been working with Schreck on their son AJ’s heartbeat song since before he was born.
“Brian recorded AJ’s heartbeat when I was 35 weeks pregnant,” Kiana Carter, 21, tells PEOPLE. “Artrez has been working to perfect a rap to accompany it ever since. It’s still a work in progress.”
The 17-month-old has been fighting to survive encephalocele, a rare type of neural tube defect that causes sac-like protrusions from the head, since he was in the womb.
When he was born, doctors predicted the newborn would only live for a few hours.
“They said we were headed to the grave, but he’s been a fighter since the beginning,” Kiana says. “We don’t know how long he will live, but we hope he can hear his song one day.”
Schreck helped Carter produce his touching tribute, which illuminates the father’s dream to see his son grow up.
“I’ve made it my personal mission to make your life more exquisite,” he raps in the song.
“I hope he can listen to it when he gets older,” Artrez Carter, 22, tells PEOPLE. “This song touches on everything I can think of in terms of my hopes for him and what I want to provide for him.”
“If he survives, I want him to listen and understand how much heart I put into this and how much I love him,” he adds. “That would be a great feeling.”
A Forever Beat
Schreck says the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital will soon begin recording emergency room patients’ heartbeats for songs. He hopes other music therapists around the world will consider using it as a coping method for their own patients.
“It’s so meaningful to hear the song of the heart,” he says. “And so meaningful for families to create these songs. It’s a nice way to connect with music, and for forever proof of children’s existence.”
He adds, “The heartbeat is a metaphor for undying love. And a heartbeat song lives forever.”