From a ‘pickle smelling dog’ to a walk on at the Olympics, Children’s Hospital patients hear their stories become songs

Listen Now
4min 31sec
Courtesy photo.
Musician Brent Cowles who performed “Pickle Smelling Dog” poses with Jonnie MacPhee, 6, who inspired the song.

Earlier this summer, young patients at Denver’s Children’s Hospital took part in an usual collaboration — they were invited to write a story about anything they wanted, with a chance to hear their ideas turned into a song. 

6-year-old Jonnie MacPhee picked something close to his heart: a beloved toy that smells like pickles. “He's a stuffed animal dog named Old Harry that's been with me since I was a baby,” Jonnie explained.

Jonnie’s mom, Rachael MacPhee, said the pair go way back. “We have a picture of Johnny in the ICU — his first ICU stay — laying in the bed with this little stuffy.”

That first hospitalization, when Jonnie was only three months old, was about 10 days. 

“During that time we learned that Johnny had a heart defect. From then on, we just kind of became permanent fixtures at Children's,” MacPhee explained.

In Jonnie’s story, Old Harry and Jonnie meet in a toy store and become enchilada-eating, TV-watching friends. Through a happy encounter with a wizard, Old Harry becomes real, and immortal, the story concludes.

Through the arts nonprofit Sing Me a Story, Jonnie’s story about Old Harry was sent to Colorado musician and songwriter Brent Cowles

“I think this type of project is exactly what music should be for,” said Cowles. “It just felt like a very natural thing, to try to use what I love doing — to create a song based on a story, written by a young person, is just, what a cool idea.”

Cowles describes his musical style as a ‘dusty, Western soulful sound’ and the song he came up with is called ‘Pickle Smelling Dog.’ 

“He's been through all of Johnny's adventures, and the story itself kind of lent itself to the sound,” Cowles said.

“Once upon a time, there was a nice funny dog his name was ol’ Harry,” Cowles sings. “He was super smart. He liked to watch TV and he liked to eat pickles — he was a pickle-smelling dog.”

This is the first time Children’s Hospital Colorado has worked with Sing Me A Story. Executive Director Austin Atteberry, also a singer-songwriter, co-founded the organization about 12 years ago. 

“Today we have about 5,000 songwriters that participate in our program. We work with a little over 200 organizations like Children’s Hospital Colorado, all over the world,” Atteberry said. 

“These opportunities for creative engagement are so important, especially at a children's hospital. Art really provides respite. It provides joy. It's a space for kids to be kids,” said Children’s Hospital arts coordinator Jasmine Chu. 

Chu notes that medical outcomes are often measured through scientific study research and quantifiable results. 

“But the results that I get to see, which I think really make the work worth doing, are the smiles I get to see on people's faces, or I see some kids… just having a great time,” Chu said. “It's really impactful and I'm just honored to provide this for our families and for patients, and for our staff too.”

Participants in the Sing Me a Story project came from two Children’s programs that work with children with complex ongoing health needs. They and their families got to hear the songs during a private concert at the hospital. The works are also available on the Sing Me a Story website.  

Courtesy photo.
Musical collaborators and members associated with the nonprofit Sing Me a Story.

15-year-old Darius Ziabakhsh used the opportunity to share his experience of walking in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics, thanks to Ronald McDonald House Charities

“I was given a chance to not only spread my story of how I grew up with medical conditions, like everyone else experiencing this, but how I was able to live with my medical conditions and (have) it be part of my life instead of something that negatively affected my life,” Ziabakhsh said. “It helps me (and) makes me feel good 'cause I can help so many people.”

One of the people Ziabakhsh helped, is the musician who turned his story into a song — hip-hop artist and songwriter Saxon Kincy

“Darius loved hip-hop. And I don't know how many people out there, especially hip-hop artists, are jumping at this opportunity,”  Kincy said. “It was amazing. It was such a good story. It was what I needed at the time.” 

Kincy said one of Ziabakshi’s lines — “I went from bitterness to thankfulness” — will stick with him forever. “I'll never forget that. And yeah, that story was so, so helpful for me,” Kincy said.

Children's Hospital Colorado clinical psychologist Cindy Buchanan works with the young patients and their families in support groups. Buchanan said that at their core, these patients and their loved ones are resilient and incredibly strong, and the art programs are an important tool for them.

“They work so hard to optimize their kids' well-being and provide them opportunities to flourish in their world. But there's moments of crisis, there's moments of significant stressors, and I wanna arm these kids with tools that can help them when they're in maybe the tougher spots,” said Buchanan. “Sometimes that's being able to go snuggle up and talk with Mom and Dad. Sometimes that's being able to journal in their Children's Hospital notebook, sometimes that's creating their own music or writing their own lyrics to songs. 

“And if we can give them the opportunity to explore some of these arts in the context of the hospital where many of these kids spend so much time, then we're giving them those tools,” Buchanan said.