Burn patient finds healing in music therapy

An Auburn woman who was severely burned finds pain relief from music therapy.

Video produced by: UAB Visual Content

Emotional and physical healing can come from a simple song that masks the pain, according to Markeyla Williams, 22, a patient at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. Williams never knew the power that music would play in healing during such a traumatic time of her life.

Williams was severely burned during an incident where her hair caught fire at home. On Sunday, May 20, she was flown by helicopter to UAB where she was treated for third-degree burns on her head, shoulders and arms.

“I ran out to my car to grab a brush after my mom had put oil in my hair and was talking with my cousin outside of my home when I flipped a lighter and caught my hair on fire,” said Williams, an Auburn, Alabama, native. “I tried to put the fire out by rolling on the ground, but it continued to spread. My cousin was also trying to put out the fire with his bare hands. I didn’t think I was going to live.”

A neighbor heard the commotion and came out to help her, eventually smothering the fire spreading across her body with a blanket. The local fire department was quickly on-site to have her airlifted to UAB, the closest hospital with a trauma burn unit.

“I had never flown before and was so scared,” Williams said. “But, I knew it was the only way I was going to live. When I got to UAB, I instantly felt at ease with the friendly staff that continues to take good care of me.”

Part of Williams’ recovery is treating and dressing her wounds, alongside occupational and physical therapy. All of this can be painful for any patient with severe burns, but is necessary to help restore and promote independence with activities of daily living.

Nicole Camp, a board-certified music therapist in UAB’s Medical Music Therapy program, stopped by Williams’ room during her therapy session to co-treat with occupational therapy and provide some relief.

“Markeyla was always joyful even in her painful circumstance,” said Chad Tidwell, an occupational therapy student at Alabama State University doing his practicum at UAB. “When we began therapy, Markeyla was in extreme pain. Nicole began to play music, and Markeyla sang along. At that point, Markeyla’s focus turned to the music and off the pain, allowing me to help her achieve full range of motion on her most severely burned hand.”

Camp asked Williams what type of music she liked, and her quick answer was R&B. When Camp started playing “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé, Williams started singing along.

“All of a sudden, the pain started to go away,” Williams said. “Chad was able to better help me work on movement in my fingers, while I was taken away by the music.”

Following the first song, Camp played the Alicia Keys hit “No One,” which touched the entire family.

“The song’s lyrics brought out so many emotions as it related to what the Williams family was going through,” Camp said. “These times may be tough, but this family will stick together to get Markeyla through her remarkable recovery and on to her next journey.”

Live performances used as music therapy work well because the energy from the patient can be controlled and influenced by the elements of the music being played.

“It’s all a matter of being alert to and responding to the patient’s physiological and emotional responses,” Camp said. “An emotional connection to a certain song, and the response to a memory associated with it, are elements we have to be sensitive to. We can then adjust tempo, lyrics, etc., accordingly. That’s not possible in real time with recorded music played on a device.”

UAB’s Music Therapy program was established in 1999 as part of Rehabilitation Therapy Services. Music therapy is the use of music to achieve goals unrelated to music. Specifically in a hospital setting, those goals may include decreasing depression, improving vital signs, pain management, reducing anxiety, making positive changes in mood to enhance patients’ coping skills and even enhancing neurological development.

The seven music therapists in the program have at least a bachelor’s degree in music therapy and are board-certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapy.