Bittersweet symphony

UQ graduate Maggie James believes in the power of music and is using her talent to brighten people’s lives – even in their darkest hours.

This is an image of music therapist Maggie James playing to a five-year-old patient at the Royal Children's Hospital in 2008.

Image: Royal Children's Hospital Foundation.

Image: Royal Children's Hospital Foundation.

Children’s faces light up when Maggie James walks into a room. With a guitar slung over one shoulder, she lugs a basket full of colourful instruments and wears a smile brighter than her floral-print dress.

But she’s even happier to see their faces. It’s why she got into the business in the first place.

And with a strum of her guitar and her soothing voice, Maggie has the children in the palm of her hand.

As they sing and clap along, they can be anything they want to be – musicians, astronauts, superheroes, fairies and princesses.

They can escape the reality of their hospital beds. Even for just a moment.

Maggie isn’t a children’s entertainer. She doesn’t perform in theatres, on television or at special events. She is a music therapist and her stage is the palliative care wards of the Queensland Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, where terminally ill children are cared for during their final days.

Despite the often sad circumstances of her workplace, Maggie (Graduate Diploma in Music Therapy ’02, Master of Business Administration ’14) said she was drawn towards palliative care soon after beginning her healthcare career.

“I am on a mission to find and create every little spark of joy so children can live their lives to the fullest while they can,” she told Contact.

“I strongly believe that we can do better to provide children and families with comfort, respect and love at the end stage of life.

“Palliative care is the only area in which we are no longer able to save a patient’s life, so it’s critical to find ways to maximise the quality of time they have left – especially for our fragile little patients.”

Maggie completed a Graduate Diploma in Music Therapy at UQ in 2002 and began working as a music therapist at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane the following year. Her role was to work with children who had an acquired brain injury, using music to engage them and their families during their rehabilitation.

Maggie looks back fondly on those days and beams as she recalls one of her favourite moments – when a six-year-old patient, who had a severe head injury from a car accident, woke mid-song after months of being in a coma.

“Her favourite song was Over the Rainbow, and I sang it to her every week while she was unconscious,” Maggie said.

“One day while I was singing to her, I saw her fingers wriggle and her mouth started to move. So I sang the chorus over and over again.

“I saw that she started mouthing some of the words to the song, so I slowed down and, the next minute, she sang the last word of the chorus.

“It was amazing! Her family shouted with joy and that was the beginning of the little girl’s recovery. She is now in high school and loves singing in her school choir.”

This is an image of music therapist and UQ graduate Maggie James.

Listening to Maggie talk, it seems like she was born for this job. But it’s a far cry from the concert pianist she spent countless hours practising to be as a child.

“I started playing the piano when I was only two years old – basically before I could talk,” Maggie said.

“My musical training background is classical and I was bathed in Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven and Bach from a very young age.

“I love classical music more than anything in the world, but I also love the old Chinese pop songs from the 1940s and ’50s that my parents used to play in the car and at home. They bring back happy and warm memories.

“I completed a Bachelor of Music degree at the Queensland Conservatorium in 2000, but I missed being around people and didn’t want to spend six hours a day in a practice room by myself.

“I wanted more than a musical connection with my audience, so I explored what I could do that would allow for a combination of people and music.”

Watch the video about music therapist Maggie James. Video: Matthew Taylor

Maggie said it was important not to underestimate the effect music can have on health and wellbeing, with music linked to increased levels of endorphins and decreased levels of stress.

“Singing helps children strengthen their vocal control and breathing system, while playing instruments improves their fine-motor and coordination skills. Dancing and movement re-train their gross motor skills,” she said.

But Maggie said there was more to being a music therapist than just singing and playing.

“It’s about understanding patients’ medical conditions, their family and social backgrounds, how the body and brain responds to music, and which music-therapy technique will achieve the best outcomes.

“My day is also filled with business-management tasks. Being in a senior role is more than providing the best frontline clinical care: it is crucial to find ways to create a sustainable music therapy service within a complex and rapidly changing healthcare system.”

It was for this reason that Maggie decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at UQ, from which she graduated in 2014.

Working in the healthcare industry for more than 10 years had honed her clinical skills; however, she realised that she needed to gain other skills to further her career.

“I chose UQ because of its global MBA reputation, but its teaching staff, flexible course arrangements and overseas partnerships also won me over,” Maggie said.

“I wanted to connect with like-minded people as well as leaders in other fields.”

Maggie is using the skills learnt through her MBA in a separate role as a member of the International Board of Trustees for the Butterfly Children’s Hospices in China, where she is supporting the Chinese government to establish its own paediatric palliative care services.

Maggie has been involved with the organisation since 2010, when she spent several months volunteering in its hospice in Changsha and also in a local orphanage.

“I believe every child, regardless of illness and family circumstances, deserves to die with dignity and love,” said Maggie, who grew up in Hong Kong.

“But, sadly, there is no paediatric palliative care service for children and their families in China. When doctors say to parents that they can’t do anything more for their dying child, parents would often have to take their child home and watch them suffer, or abandon them to a local orphanage.

“Compare this to what we have in Australia, which is a very supportive palliative care service. In Queensland, we have a dedicated statewide service that works across the public and private systems.

“It provides symptoms-management care, equipment to support home care, counselling and bereavement services, and a range of allied health services that include music therapy.”

This is an image of music therapist and UQ graduate Maggie James.

Maggie travels to China regularly and returned to Changsha in February this year, where she met with all Butterfly Children’s Hospices board trustees from around the world to discuss a strategic plan for the next three years. She believes that for China to develop paediatric palliative care services, attitudes need to change.

“It’s a huge challenge and one that will involve developing resources, educating and training local health professionals, and most importantly, changing cultural perspectives of palliative care,” she said.

“In China, having someone die in your house brings bad luck and shame on the family. Most people can’t afford to pay for their children to go into hospital and even if they could, the doctors don’t know how to best manage a child’s death.

“Many parents abandon critically ill children despite the fact that they could be put in jail if they get caught, so they tend to leave them in places they can’t easily be found. The children don’t stand much of a chance.”

Maggie will focus much of her attention towards the Butterfly Children’s Hospice in 2019 while spending more time with her husband Nigel James (Bachelor of Engineering ’03, Master of Business Administration ’15) – who she met at UQ while completing her MBA – and two children, one-year-old Millicent and Vivienne, born in May.

This is an image of music therapist and UQ graduate Maggie James.

Images: Anjanette Webb

Images: Anjanette Webb

A strong family support network is important to Maggie, especially due to the emotionally taxing nature of her work.

“It’s never easy to say goodbye to my patients, and it’s especially hard watching parents, siblings and grandparents say their forever goodbyes,” Maggie said.

“Fortunately, I have good supervision and have self-care in place that allows me to reflect on the work I do and look after myself.

“I believe that it’s crucial to look after my mental health so I can keep doing the work that I love. I have an amazing and supportive family, which I think is a key protective factor.

“Often after a patient passes away, especially when I’m involved in that patient’s passing process, I take time to have a cuppa and reminisce on the positive things that I got to share with them.”

Yet, Maggie is quick to point out the countless magical and joyous moments as well.

“I love walking into the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit with my guitar every day. I think the guitar represents something calm and positive,” she said.

“The moment I strum the first chord on the guitar, I see the smiles and comfort on their little faces and that makes my heart sing.”

Maggie James is an example of a UQ graduate who has overcome the unknowns of the music industry to bring joy and comfort to children and their families. Learn how UQ can help you go further in every possible future.


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