SSM Health's 'Ukes for Dads' strums on the heartstrings of NICU babies

December 15, 2020

Intimate ukulele performances forge father-baby bonds

Aaron Dohogne has fond memories of enjoying music with his dad when he was growing up in the 1990s. He recalls listening to the Beatles and Roy Orbison blasting from the radio in his father's rusty Toyota truck. Now, Dohogne and his son John also share a love of music. Their bond was forged not on the road but in the neonatal intensive care unit of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis, thanks to "Ukes for Dads."

Aaron and Maeve Dohogne celebrate baby John's homecoming Sept. 15 after more than a year in the NICU at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis. A music therapist there taught Aaron to play simple chords on the ukulele and use music to bond with his son.

John was born in July 2019 with a diaphragmatic hernia, a hole in his diaphragm that allowed other organs to shift upward and hamper lung development. He spent more than a year in the NICU, where both Dohogne, 35, and his wife Maeve, 34, initially visited every day.

A few months in music therapist Kelli McKee handed Dohogne a ukulele and taught him to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for his son.

"It gave me something to do, to take my mind off things," Dohogne said. "And it became a way for me to share something I'm passionate about with the most important thing in my life — my son John."

Dad-baby bonds
Most NICU programs are geared toward supporting moms, according to McKee. Last year, she was looking for a way to help strengthen father-child bonds. McKee successfully petitioned for donor funding to create Ukes for Dads in cooperation with another program, the Ukulele Kids Club, which provides these string instruments to hospitalized children.

With Exzavior nestled on his chest, Nick Houston strums his ukulele in the NICU at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. Houston says Exzavior normally smiles and laughs at his performances.

McKee began by gathering a few dads in a room and showing them some basic chords for this relatively easy-to-learn instrument, and encouraging them to sing. Besides fostering stronger bonds, research shows that parents singing to their babies also teaches the children to self-soothe, introduces language concepts and supports brain development, McKee said.

Twenty fathers have now gone through the Ukes For Dads program.

"It's a threefold benefit for the dads," McKee said. "They get a way to bond with their babies, they get a coping tool for themselves and they get to bond with other dads and build that camaraderie with each other."

McKee made sure the funding covered the cost of allowing the dads to take home their ukuleles.

"We just didn't feel right about providing them with this amazing coping tool and then saying, 'Well, good luck getting one on your own,'" McKee said. "A lot of them might not have the resources for that, especially when you think about how expensive a lengthy NICU stay can be."

Pandemic changes the tune
Ukes for Dads has continued through the pandemic. But COVID-19 restrictions did impact the Dohognes and others in the group from mid-March through mid-May of this year. During that time, the NICU required couples to designate one parent as the sole visitor because of the pandemic, and the Dohognes, like most NICU couples, decided it should be mom. At the same time Aaron Dohogne lost visiting privileges with his son, social distancing thrust the high school government and history teacher into a virtual classroom.

Maeve Dohogne cradles John, while her husband Aaron sings the Beatles' "From Me to You" in the Cardinal Glennon NICU.

"And no one really knew what the game plan was for that," Dohogne said.

But he did have a game plan for being with John even though he couldn't visit in person. Strumming his ukulele and singing at home, Dohogne recorded videos of himself performing a repertoire that had grown to include the Beatles' "From Me to You" and Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman."

"My wife said John loved hearing my voice," Dohogne said.

For Maeve Dohogne it was a bright spot in a sometimes-overwhelming period in which she worked remotely as the creative director for an advertising firm.

"It was so nice having dad sing and play music — a real point of connection," she said.

Home since mid-September, John is a smiley 17-month-old who has a range of difficulties stemming from his condition, from low vision to heart issues to neurological deficits. Looking back over the past year or so, Maeve Dohogne said enjoying music together in one form or another during her son's NICU stay was helpful to everyone in this new family.

"It just kind of brought some lightness to the experience," she said. "Sometimes, when you're in the hospital this long with a sick baby, it's like, 'Well, what do we do?' You can't just read to him all the time."

High notes
Nick Houston's son Exzavior was born three months premature and spent seven months in the Cardinal Glennon NICU before going home this past May. Houston calls his son a "super-giggly, super-curious little guy" who has no problem voicing his opinions. He said Exzavior makes it clear with smiles and laughter that he loves listening to his father strum the ukulele.

Houston, 26, and his wife have two other children, Ava, 7, and Izayah, 4, who also enjoy music. Before the pandemic, the Houstons all gathered in the hospital, Houston on his ukulele and the older children playing whatever instrument McKee could dig up, often a tambourine or triangle.

"It was an unforgettable experience," Houston said. "I think it kind of brought us closer together as a family."

The auto assembly worker said his older children particularly enjoyed an event last Christmas in which he and several other NICU dads played "Jingle Bells" on their ukuleles while their families enjoyed the performance.

"My kids were freaking out, super excited," Houston said. "Izayah ran and actually jumped in my lap while I was playing."

Both Houston and Dohogne expect that enjoying the ukulele will remain a family pastime long after the NICU becomes a distant memory.

"Maybe one day John will be able to sing along," Dohogne said.


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