Moving to the Music: Riley Music Therapist, Caitlin Krater, MS, MT-BC

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“When I began to learn more about the tangible effects of music on a one to one basis (while getting my degree in college) and then observing immediate results in clinic it was just amazing."

Life can be a potpourri of people and experiences. Some subtly pass, while others can make a stronger impression. For Riley Hospital for Children music therapist, Caitlin Krater, it was her grandmother. Having suffered a massive stroke in her forties, the elder had to depend on others for care.

“My grandmother couldn’t talk or complete basic skills. But when I’d sit next to her and sing her favorite songs, those were her most lucid moments,” recalls Caitlin, “the way her eyes would light up, the way she’d struggle to hum along with me. We truly connected. It was amazing what music could do,” Caitlin.

Today, Caitlin still holds the experience close to her heart--and credits it for her occupation. “Back then, I was just a curious kid, so, I decided to Google “music and helping people.” And that was the first time I encountered the term music therapy.”

The occupation intrigued Caitlin. It wasn’t a stretch for the Chicago native. Caitlin had always loved to sing. “I have a big voice,” she says with a smile. Caitlin had grown up participating in choir, even winning a few local contests for her vocal skills. “At that time, I even had a vocal coach and we were thinking about Julliard and other performing arts programs but I then I starting thinking about my grandmother and I started asking myself “Beyond just supplying people with beautiful music, how can I truly help people?”

The answer, she says, was music therapy. “When I began to learn more about the tangible effects of music on a one to one basis (while getting my degree in college) and then observing immediate results in clinic it was just amazing. Just being able to use music that I (or others) made to help people achieve their health goals or just physically feel better was so gratifying. That’s when I knew this career was right for me.”

Caitlin has worked at Riley for a year and half, toiling at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as a music therapist prior. Why did she choose to work with kids? “I didn’t have the easiest childhood so I’ve always understood the way that music can move you through a difficult time,” she says.

While Riley currently employs three music therapists, Caitlin’s cases primarily come from oncology, the burn unit, stem cell transplant and the pulmonary unit. “Adolescents are the biggest population I work with, so older kids that are dealing with chronic illnesses like cancer or cystic fibrosis.”

And how does one obtain music therapy?

“We have doctors, nurses, other therapists and social workers make referrals for patients,” Caitlin explains. “Then, they are placed on our case load and we visit them to see how we can assist. We observe what they have going on to see if they’re struggling with pain, or if it’s more emotional. Then, I explain what I do—which, at the most basic level, is use music to help people feel better.”

Picture-perfect pitch and tone aren’t a necessity.

It’s not about how you sound, Caitlin says, it’s about how the music makes you feel. “We can sound pretty bad, but as long as the kiddos feel good, I’ve succeeded.  Sometimes, I have kids banging on a drum, shouting at the top of their lungs but that’s cathartic for them. Other times, I’ll get called to help a patient that is in a lot of pain but cannot get any more medicine for a while. So, I’ll come play their preferred music tailored to their body rhythms such as heart rate or respiratory rate to try to calm discomfort or agitation.”

The best part of Caitlin’s job? “Seeing how strong and resilient the children are—watching the way my patients manage and overcome stressors is inspiring,” she explains.

The most challenging component? Losing kids.

“When a patient passes you carry that with you forever. It changes you as a person and as a therapist,” Caitlin explains. “Yet, some of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced as a music therapist have been toward the end of a life. I remember walking into a patient’s room one day and playing their favorite song, Old McDonald, and everyone was standing together around the patient in tears. You constantly have these moments that bring you right back to the power of music.”

Riley’s music therapy team also offers a unique legacy project to some families. “We can create original recordings where we record the patient’s heart beat and intertwine it into the patient’s favorite song, and then offer that to the family after the passing. It’s something tangible they can take with them.”

Through it all, Caitlin continues to play music. Why does she remain at Riley? “When I was an undergraduate attending the University of Iowa, I worked at Camp Riley one summer. The campers and staff inspired me so much and I never forgot that. It became clear that Riley was a special place to be.”

Sadly, Caitlin’s grandmother never lived long enough to see her become a music therapist. “She passed away just after my freshman year of college. I remember trying to sing at her funeral but I kept falling apart. But, I see her in my work and everything that I do. Her legacy and spirit are always with me.”

-- By Sarah Burns

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