Through music, the child life team at Sanford Bismarck helps 11-year-old Enoch Illunga escape the challenges of sickle cell disease.

Music therapy transforms young patient

December 17, 2019

Enoch Illunga loves music. With an instrument in his hands, most often a ukulele, he transforms from a sick 11-year-old confined to a hospital bed into a rock star ready to take on the world.

Enoch has sickle cell disease. Sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow throughout his body and cause pain so severe Enoch is often hospitalized for treatment. The disease also weakens his immune system and makes him more susceptible to infection.

“He will be laughing and playing one moment and running into the house with pain the next,” said Enoch’s mom, Celestine Illunga. “The pain comes whenever, every week or once a year. You can’t say when it’s coming or how long it will last.”

Enoch, now a fifth-grader, has battled sickle cell disease his entire life. Two of his three older siblings also suffer from the disease.

During Enoch’s frequent hospitalizations at Sanford Children’s in Bismarck, he has found solace in his love for music, working with Board-Certified Music Therapist Bobbi Jo Vandal.

As a member of Sanford Bismarck’s child life team, Vandal uses music to help children manage stress, express feelings and cope with the physical, social and emotional challenges of an injury, illness or hospitalization.

Prior to working with Vandal, Enoch resisted walks or even sitting up in bed. But once Vandal entered the room with her guitar and a ukulele for Enoch, he was ready to get moving.

“Bobbi Jo helped him recover so much faster,” Celestine said. “It felt so good to see.”

With Vandal’s help, Enoch composed a five-song album with cover art he designed himself. When Enoch went home from a recent hospitalization, he had CDs to share with his family.

Vandal also gave him a ukulele to play at home. The instrument keeps Enoch busy when his health keeps him from running and playing outdoors. The distraction of practicing his ukulele also helps with pain management.

Enoch has been so inspired, he is also learning to play the violin at school and wants to try his skill at the drums.


Going Above and Beyond

Music therapy is a key feature of the child life program, which wouldn’t be available today without our generous donors to the Above and Beyond campaign. Philanthropy helped launch the program at Sanford Bismarck last fall.

With donor support, we’ve now surpassed our fundraising goal, ensuring child life will always be available for our region’s children at no cost to families.

To learn more about the Above and Beyond campaign, visit sanfordhealthfoundation.org/childlife.