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From Riley to University Hospital – Patient relies on music therapy

IU Health University Hospital

From Riley to University Hospital – Patient relies on music therapy

He first came to IU Health as an infant and recently when he came back as an adult, Nathan Smith again looked forward to music therapy.

By Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

As he listens to music therapist Adam Perry strum the guitar at his University Hospital bedside, Nathan Smith is taken back to another time when he was a patient at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

Born with Spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine and spinal cord, Smith, has been in and out of the hospital since the day he was born 36 years ago. He said he was one of the first patients to take part in music therapy when it was introduced at Riley Hospital 20 years ago by music therapy director Ann Hannan.

“That got me through many long and difficult days in the hospital,” said Smith, a resident of Columbus, Ind. And recently, he also passed time during his hospital stays taking part in music therapy with Perry. At University Hospital music therapy is part of the CompleteLife Program that offers comprehensive therapy that attends to the body, mind, and spirit. In addition to music therapy CompleteLife offers complimentary yoga, art, and massage therapy to patients and their caregivers.

As Smith talks to nurse Kendra Winters about his life in and out of the hospital he tells her how much he appreciates the care he has received over the years. He’s lost count but estimates he’s had about 200 surgeries.

“Being in and out of the hospital and in a wheelchair, the hardest thing has been to fit in,” said Smith. In sixth grade he turned to music and found his peers through band. He started with trumpet but doctors advised him against adding pressure to his abdomen, caused by blowing on the wind instrument.

“The band director happened to have a spot open for a percussionist so I transitioned over,” said Smith. He took part in state competitions and local parades and continued focusing on music throughout high school. “It was the perfect fit. The friends I’ve made through band are friends I’ll have for life,” said Smith. As a sign of their friendship the group all got tattoos of a musical scale. Smith shows his – on his arm.

Over the years, those same friends have gone to numerous concerts together – always clearing the path for Smith to enjoy the experience even with the crowds. When they were attending a show by the heavy metal rock band, “In This Moment” Smith crowd surfed in his wheelchair. He laughs as he relates the story.

“There were some guys moving people out of the way so I could see better and the next thing I knew they lifted me up for a better view and I was crowd surfing. It was scary but fun,” said Smith. His love for music has taken him to concerts by Metallica, Motley Crue, and Slayer. It was at a music festival where he joined the fun on a slip and slide, landing in the mud. At the bottom of the slide Smith’s foot hit some glass. Over time, it became so infected that he had his left leg amputated below the knee.

The trip down the slip and slide is just one example of his resolve to enjoy everything life has to offer. It hasn’t been easy. He has Type II diabetes, and was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“My parents were by far my biggest supporters. My mom always had this mentality that ‘there’s nothing wrong with your brain; it’s the physical part that is holding you back,’” said Smith, the son of Bruce and Sherry Query. He also has a younger sister.

“In Kindergarten they wanted to put me in special education and mom said ‘No, you need to meet my son before you do that.’ They wanted to do it again in high school because they only see what’s on paper. I never let things physically hold me back unless I had to,” said Smith.

In sixth grade he served as manager of the basketball team and also took a class field trip to Mammoth Cave. He was walking then and slowly made his way into the caves.

“My sixth grade teacher was sweating but she said, ‘if Nathan can do it, I can do it,’” he remembers. In high school he took a trip to Conner Prairie with a class that combined English and American history. At some point he was having some difficulty moving up a hill so his friends lifted him up wheelchair and all.

In college he studied abroad in London and Paris. He went on to get his degree in psychology. At the age of 21 he traveled to Alaska with his sister and volunteered at a missionary camp. Smith’s project was refurbishing a chapel. Faith has always been important to him.

He has shared his musical talents as part of his church worship team and presented talks about his faith.

“I’ve never known life any other way and I want to share with people who don’t understand,” said Smith. “I have a lot to be thankful for.”