Bay Area family's journey from cancer to hospital music programs around the world

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We work to tell stories about people who are building a better Bay Area, which includes efforts to keep our kids happy, even when they're in the hospital.

A Los Gatos family started a foundation that is giving millions to fund music therapy programs around the world, including at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco.

One-year-old twins, Zion and Destiny, were born prematurely at UCSF. They've had a complicated start to life, especially Destiny, who has significant breathing problems and will likely be in the hospital for another nine months.

But their days, which are mostly filled with tubes, beeping monitors, and doctor visits, have been made a little more joyful thanks to music.

Last year, UCSF's three full-time music therapists sang and strummed their way through 3,000 music sessions with infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.

"The music therapy is meant for the girls, but it also is a therapy for me," said Brittany Bihns, who delivered Zion and Destiny, when she was just 25 weeks pregnant and feels the music is helping her daughter physically heal. "Sometimes, there's days where we don't know if Destiny is going to make it or not. And when the music therapist comes in, sings, it makes Destiny's heart rate go down, and her oxygen levels go up... It just makes me feel like she's going to be okay."

The UCSF music therapy program is entirely funded through the Peterson Family Foundation, the inspiration for which, comes from some of the family members own experiences at hospitals.

"It was really tough being in the hospital, you didn't have any kind of creative outlets," said Eric Peterson, who was born in Santa Cruz, and diagnosed with leukemia when he was three years old.

Five years later, his mother died from lung cancer.
So, in 2001, his father Jeff Peterson founded the Peterson Family Foundation. Since then, they've started music programs at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco, Lucille Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London.

"It's something that really sheds a positive light on the hospital in general," said Peterson about the music programs, who say they are seeing positive results. "It's being seen in neurology, in rehabilitation, for mobility, for language, and different neuro necessities."

To help their youngest patients, music therapists, like Brianna Negrete, are using the Pacifier Activated Lullaby or PAL. The device plays songs whenever the baby sucks on the attached pacifier, which provides positive reinforcement for sucking, a critical infant life skill. Caregivers can even record their own songs onto the device, so their baby can hear a familiar voice, while they're in the hospital.

"It really helps support feeding, which helps our infants go home from the hospital sooner," said Negrete.

The Peterson Family Foundation has also funded a recording studio at UCSF, where patients can play and record music. The studio is also used to record the heartbeats of children who pass away... a treasured keepsake for families who don't get to bring their children home from the hospital.

The Peterson Family is hoping to expand its music program to a hospital in Rome.

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