Megan Brightbill’s musical reawakening came at the unlikeliest of times—as she lay in a hospital bed in August 2021 enduring some of the worst pain of her life.

It began the day Erin Wegener, a music therapist, walked into her fifth floor room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital carrying a guitar.

After playing for Brightbill and noting their shared love of music, Wegener invited Brightbill, 32, to sing with her.

Because she had a private room, Brightbill agreed.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m in a room alone, so I won’t be bothering anyone,’” she said.

“So I sat up and just sang along with her—and that was just the beginning of something great for me. Because music’s always been something that really speaks to me, and sharing that with somebody really brought a light back—like, brought me back to myself.”

Rediscovering her voice

Brightbill, a resident of Kentwood, Michigan, had known Wegener would be coming to see her that day.

She’d signed up for music therapy at the encouragement of a palliative care social worker, Molly Dollahan, MSW.

Perhaps the music would calm her soaring anxiety, Brightbill thought—anxiety triggered by debilitating lower back pain that doctors said could be caused by a cancer recurrence, just nine months after a crushing breast cancer diagnosis.

Brightbill had assumed music therapy would involve simply listening to music.

But as she sang along with Wegener’s guitar, her heart cracked open.

“I’d been a bit overwhelmed by the diagnosis and everything,” Brightbill said.

“Having music brought to me in a way that allowed me to engage in it rather than just sit there and listen … woke up a lot inside of me—and things, I guess, weren’t as dark anymore.”

As Wegener strummed, Brightbill sang music from some of her favorite artists.

“Liar” by Noah Cyrus.

Ben Platt’s “So Will I” and “Grow as We Go.”

The lyrics to “So Will I”—a song Wegener hadn’t heard before—struck the therapist as especially poignant.

“I shared it with other patients after she shared it with me, because it talks about how someone in your life is going to be there for you even if you walk through really difficult times … something about ‘the stars will fall, but the world will always be there and so will I,’” Wegener said.

“Megan just had a beautiful voice—like, a gorgeous voice. And I was really struck by how she seemed to have this strength and resilience and a lot of passion in her.”

Patients don’t have to be musical themselves to enjoy music therapy, Wegener said.

But for those who already love music, it can be especially beneficial.

“If music is something that is in someone’s background or in their life, it can be a really helpful coping skill and a way to express yourself and a way to reduce anxiety or improve your mood,” she said.

“There is a humanness in being able to make music together and express yourself in music…. Maybe it becomes a little less about a patient and therapist and more about just experiencing the music together.”

Music therapists use a range of musical interventions in their work with patients, Wegener said—including playing instruments, singing, improvising music, analyzing lyrics, songwriting and using music for muscle relaxation or building physical strength.

In her second session with Brightbill, Wegener handed her a ukulele.

Though she’d taught herself to play the instrument early in the coronavirus pandemic, when the preschool where she taught had closed for a time, Brightbill hadn’t touched her ukulele since November 2020.

That’s when her breast cancer diagnosis sprang up, absorbing her time and energy.

Chemotherapy treatments, in advance of an April 2021 lumpectomy, brought difficult side effects, such as hair loss, nausea and oral thrush.

Mouth sores made speaking so painful that she effectively lost her voice.

“When I was going through my chemo, I would get thrush really badly, to the point where I couldn’t speak and was actually nervous for a few months that I would never get my singing voice back,” Brightbill said.

Now, thanks to Wegener, she felt inspired to return to the ukulele.

“To finally, after all these months, sing and be given a ukulele to play again—and just being with someone who not only is great at playing music but is so encouraging and supportive… that was one of the most helpful aspects of being in the hospital.”

‘More than our disease’

Brightbill had three music therapy sessions before she moved to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

There she engaged in physical therapy, occupational therapy and recreational therapy as she worked to regain the mobility she’d lost when back pain derailed her daily routine.

Just as her music therapy experience had brought unexpected joy to her days at Butterworth Hospital, so recreation therapy brought fun and a sense of normalcy to her time at the Inpatient Rehab Center.

Rec therapy sessions focused on her personal interests and hobbies rather than her physical challenges. She and her therapist played Scattergories and other word games—the types of activities Brightbill enjoys at home, where she lives with her mom, sister and niece.

After a year of “so many doctors,” she appreciated the recreational approach to care. It helps patients “feel like we’re more than our disease or sickness,” she said.

Early in her 12-day stay at the Inpatient Rehab Center, Brightbill received a critical piece of news: her intense pain had no link to cancer.

Test results showed the source of the pain to be compressed nerves and degenerative changes in her lower spine.

This meant that though her scheduled course of treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer would continue—including targeted IV therapy, hormone therapy and radiation therapy—she wouldn’t have to expand her cancer treatment regimen.

Instead, she would engage in outpatient physical therapy and visit the Spectrum Health Spine & Pain Management Center to pursue other treatment options.

Brightbill knows the path forward won’t be easy. But having rediscovered the gift of music in her life, she’s claimed it as a constant companion.

“I am literally writing lyrics and chords down in a music book that I keep so I can play ukulele wherever I go,” she said.

“It’s brought me back to more of who I am.”