More than a Headache

By Loretta Coureas

Family and friends, including her parents, enjoy Sara’s first piano recital, which took place at CHKD.
Family and friends, including her parents, enjoy Sara’s first piano recital, which took place at CHKD.

Cancer patient speeds tempo of recovery while developing a talent for the piano.

When 12-year-old Sara Merrill came to CHKD to be treated for leukemia, she never expected she would be giving a piano recital.

For one thing, Sara didn’t know how to play the piano.

But six months after she began treatment, Sara settled behind an electronic keyboard in a CHKD conference room and played before a room packed with relatives, teachers, friends, nurses and doctors. She beamed as her audience responded to her playing.

Sara’s piano debut was made possible by CHKD music therapist Leslie Magee, who spent several months teaching Sara to play while she was hospitalized for treatment for leukemia. Kid-friendly activities, such as music and art therapy, help children cope with long periods of hospitalization. Sara’s piano lessons distracted her from her illness and helped her feel in control of at least some aspects of her life.

Like many children at CHKD, Sara lost any semblance of a normal life the day last winter she learned she had cancer.

On the morning of January 4, her father, Chesapeake detective Benny Merrill, took Sara to Chesapeake Pediatrics for routine tests. She had been pale and feeling ill after a busy holiday season. That afternoon, the Merrills were shocked when Lisa Bunting, a physician at the practice, phoned with Sara’s test results: Cancer was the diagnosis. Dr. Bunting said Sara needed to get to the CHKD pediatric intensive care unit right away.

Within the hour, the Merrills learned that Sara was suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia, a life-threatening cancer of the bone marrow. Her platelet count had risen so high she could have suffered a stroke. “I lost it,” Benny said on hearing the news.

Sara was immediately admitted to the hospital to begin treatment by pediatric oncologist Linda Pegram. She learned she wouldn’t be going home for weeks. Her treatment plan would involve five, month-long rounds of chemotherapy. Between each round of chemo in the hospital, she could spend a week at home.

Sara Merrill

For any child, this can be tough. For an active pre-teen like Sara, cut off from her friends and normal activities, it can be excruciating. Benny and Yvonne Merrill took turns sleeping in a bed in Sara’s hospital room. “She never spent one night alone,” Benny said. But they could see that the long days and nights were taking a toll on their daughter.

So when the music therapist with the CHKD hospital school program learned that Sara would be hospital-bound for long periods, she asked Sara if she would like to learn to play the piano. Sara agreed enthusiastically.

“I knew that piano lessons would give her something she could control during a time when she had very little control of her life,” said music therapist Leslie Magee.

Sara turned out to be an exceptional student, breezing through beginning piano books. Her parents bought her an electronic keyboard that she could use any time, any place.

Everybody began to notice the positive change in Sara. Her parents, friends and treatment team could see a marked change in her attitude after piano lessons began.

“I think it was a perfect outlet for her,” Dr. Pegram said. “Keeping kids from getting depressed helps them tolerate their treatments.”

Playing piano became Sara’s most effective therapy.

“Whenever I’m really depressed, I can play the piano and it helps me feel better,” Sara said.

After six months of lessons, Sara learned more than many children do in years, so Magee suggested a recital to showcase Sara’s new talent.

Again, the therapist thought it was important to put Sara in control. As expected, Sara took charge. “She really got into the recital planning,” Magee said. “She made invitations and posted them throughout the hospital.” And she practiced her music while receiving her treatments.

On June 21, Sara perched behind the keyboard at the front of a packed hospital conference room. Benny Merrill gripped a video camera as Sara launched into her concert, which included “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter movie. Her audience was extremely impressed.

Benny did his best to capture his daughter’s piano debut on video, but it wasn’t easy.

“I had a hard time filming,” he said. “I was choking up.”

In July, Sara finished her last round of chemotherapy. Her leukemia had gone into remission, Dr. Pegram said.

In September, Sara not only went back to school, she signed up for private piano lessons.

Dr. Pegram practices with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD. Dr. Bunting practices with CHKD’s Chesapeake Pediatrics.

This story was featured in the fourth quarter 2007 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.