Striking the right note

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Musical instruments provide light in the darkness of cancer recovery

By Ramsey Scott

Music is freedom. 

Music can mean freedom from the pain and misery of a broken heart, or the feeling of freedom that new love brings. 

For Donavan Ariza, 16, music has meant freedom from the stress, pain and loneliness of fighting cancer.

“It was everything. It brightened me up when I was down,” Donavan said. “It helped me out so much.”

During his treatment, Donavan learned to play a guitar that was given to him by the Blue Star Connection, a nonprofit started nine years ago by blues guitarist John Catt. The group gets instruments in the hands of kids fighting cancer or other hardships.

Last weekend, Blue Star Connection held a benefit concert at Clement Park for the organization that has donated hundreds of instruments to 25 children’s hospitals and to groups that help kids in need, like Littleton’s Shiloh House.

When Donavan was 12, he was diagnosed with HLH, Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis, a life-threatening immune disorder that requires chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant. During his treatment, doctors also found a large tumor in one of his lungs and intestines that required more surgery.

As a result of his illness, Donavan couldn’t fight infections and spent a lot of time isolated. At one point, he said he was fighting off four different types of pneumonia. 

“I had to wear a mask 24/7. I got teased a lot with the mask on,” Donavan said. 

Donavan said the guitar got him through the loneliness and pain of treatment. 

“It feels like it empties out your soul. It’s so therapeutic,” Donavan said. “It’s helped me out in so many ways. I can’t go anywhere without my guitar now.”

For Lexy Greenwell, she knew all about the freedom of music before a tumor was discovered on her brain stem. Greenwell had been playing music since she was a little kid and was still pursuing it in college when the tumor robbed her of her motor skills.

“When I was first diagnosed, I noticed I wasn’t able to play music. It was to the point of where I couldn’t pick up my guitar and play or beat box,” Greenwell said.  

After a successful surgery to remove the tumor, Greenwell went through music therapy at Craig Hospital. Playing guitar and drums, beat boxing and singing are what helped Greenwell take control of her body again. 

“Of course, it was very hard at first. It wasn’t just the music, it was walking, it was talking and it was seeing. All of those things I had to relearn to do,” Greenwell said. “It wasn’t just a physical recovery. It was an emotional one as well.”

In February, Greenwell sang a duet with Grammy-winning singer and producer David Foster at a star-studded benefit for Craig Hospital. She is still amazed at how far she’s come from being in a wheel chair. 

“Music means everything. It was really hard at first to accept I wasn’t able to do play for such a long time,” Greenwell said. “Now, I’m very proud of myself from going from a diagnosis of you’re going to die to performing on a stage, performing for other people and for myself, it really means everything.”

Greenwell was recently given an electric guitar by Blue Star Connection after it heard about her battle with cancer. Each instrument it gives represents a chance for some small freedom from whatever struggles the kids are going through, said Emily Garcia. 

Garcia knows the power of that freedom firsthand. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer called osteosarcoma when she was younger and as a result had her right leg amputated below the knee and several ribs removed.

During her treatment back home in Texas, Garcia was connected to Blue Star, and it helped get her a new guitar. Having another outlet to get her emotions out during treatment was invaluable for her recovery, Garcia said. 

That’s why she now works as Blue Star’s ambassador in Texas, helping get instruments in the hands of kids who are going through the same struggles she’s still dealing with. 

“Oh my gosh, I know how important it was for me in my treatment,” Garcia said. “It helped me get out a lot of inner feelings when I was in treatment.”


Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22 and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.