Former Patient Returns to the NICU to Give the Gift of Music

Twelve-year-old Isabella Ciriello, who spent her first three months in intensive care, returns to play guitar for newborns.

Isabella Ciriello, 12, sat next to an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital, her Ramirez classical guitar in hand, and began playing Summer Dreams by Michael Yukich, one of five pieces she’d prepared for her audience of newborns.

For Isabella, a seventh-grader from New York City, it was a way to give back. Now an accomplished musician who plays guitar, piano, and drums, Isabella, who was born 16 weeks early, was first exposed to music as a patient at NYP Komansky Children’s Hospital. In March 2006, when she was 49 days old, Dr. Jeffrey Perlman, director of newborn medicine and medical director of the NICU at NYP Komansky Children’s Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, told Isabella’s mom, Marcia Ciriello, that the music of Mozart and other classical composers soothes premature babies while they eat, sleep, and grow and encouraged her to play music for Isabella in her Isolette, a covered crib for premature or newborn infants.

“I have a good friend who’s a classical pianist, and she has many recordings,” says Marcia. “I asked her to give me one of her recordings, a CD of Mozart sonatas. That’s the one we used in the NICU.”

Isabella doesn’t remember the music itself, but believes being surrounded by music did more than provide a calming atmosphere. “I definitely think hearing music in the NICU sparked my interest in music,” she says. “Playing for the babies in there now, I kind of pictured myself in an incubator listening to music.”

Dr. Jeffrey Perlman and Isabella Ciriello today and Isabella when she was in the NICU

Dr. Jeffrey Perlman and Isabella Ciriello today and Isabella when she was in the NICU

Isabella was able to leave the NICU after 12 weeks. She and her mom had regular follow-up visits with Dr. Perlman, but those ended when she was 5. Recently, Isabella became a Grey’s Anatomy fanatic and was thinking of going into medicine, and after reading a blog her mom kept when Isabella was in the NICU, asked if she could meet Dr. Perlman. The three met for lunch this summer, and when they shared with Dr. Perlman Isabella’s love of music, it gave him an idea.

“I would love to put together an orchestra of all my former patients that have gotten into a serious study of music,” he told them. “We should do something with Isabella. We should put something together in the NICU. I’ll call you.”

The summer came and went, Marcia says, and then they got a call from Dr. Perlman inviting Isabella to come back to the NICU during World Prematurity Month and play guitar for the babies.

The day of her appearance in the NICU, Isabella was focused on the music but was thinking about the babies too.

“It just feels really good to play music for them and help them,” she says. “I was in their position, so I’m grateful to give back. It felt good to be able to go and play for them. It’s just amazing.”

By the end of Isabella’s performance, her audience had grown. Isabella looked up and to her surprise saw the room was filled with doctors and nurses, some of whom had taken care of Isabella when she was a baby.

“It was really sweet of them to come and listen,” says Marcia. “They’re so busy and they’re saving lives and making miracles happen. We were really touched that everyone took the time to come and listen to her play.”

Isabella is working with the on-staff musicologist at NYP Komansky Children’s Hospital to continue visiting and playing music for the babies.