Music as medicine: Brooklyn musician Sean Fentress bonds with 17-year-old hospice patient

brooklyn musician sean fentress plays guitar with a pediatric hospice patient
Each month, Brooklyn-based musician Sean Fentress travels up to the Bronx to play music with Adolfo Campos, a 17-year-old hospice patient.
Photo courtesy of MJHS Health System

Once a week, Brooklyn-based musician Sean Fentress, better known for his band’s Straw Man Army’s music, hops on the train up to the Bronx to spend an afternoon with Adolfo Campos, a 17-year-old with leukemia. Together, the pair fill the apartment with music. 

Fentress is a volunteer with the MJHS pediatric hospice program, and he and Campos connected late last year, instantly bonding over their shared love of music. Some days, Fentress and Campos play their favorite chord progressions. Sometimes they make new music and take time to explore new bands and exchange records. But mostly, they’ve developed a friendship that takes their minds off of a diagnosis. 

The latest album by Fentress’ band, SOS, was praised as one of the best of 2022 by Washington Post music critic Chris Richards.  

“Volunteers like him, who do art therapy and work on a legitimate affinity with patients, spending time with them, really do make a difference for the patient, for their family and for the volunteer,” said Nicole Gingerella, pediatric hospice nurse practitioner. “I’ve come in to the home hearing music play, sometimes they’re in the middle of a song and that makes my job better.  They are a good match, it shines through.”

In January, Fentress was named MJHS’s volunteer of the month. The 28-year-old musician has lived in Brooklyn for five years, and plays in the band Straw Man Army. When he was a teenager, his father was diagnosed with cancer. He made it through, but Fentress recalls that experience as a first moment of awareness regarding mortality.

“In America, we have a very adolescent relationship with death and the idea of impermanence,” he said. “It’s very out of sight, out of mind. It’s as if we don’t wanna talk about it, we don’t want to hear about it. Our elderly tend to be in some facility somewhere out of the youth’s way. I was disturbed by how our culture denies such an undeniable and close truth —we are all going to die. I want to push that needle towards a more integrated, mature, accepting, less fearful relationship.”

Fentress believes music can help a person express themselves through challenging times. When he heard about a young patient who played guitar and knew about his music, there was a “kind of karmic alignment,” Fentress said. “Feels like I’m on the right path here.”

He met Campos in October of 2022 over FaceTime and realized that not only they both play guitar, but they like to listen to and to play the same type of music — punk and death metal. They started meeting right away.

“I’m not in the loop of how his treatment is going just because we talk about other stuff,” Fentress said. “If anything, I offer him a clean slate or a break from it and we are just friends hanging out. That makes us able to move some creative energy, there’s a kind of energetic discharge, a pressure relief. Music is such an emotional guide to explore one’s own emotional landscape, and then have it validated or mirrored or just expressed. When I leave Adolfo, I get the sense that we’ve both received that kind of almost medicinal quality of music.”

Campos says he relates every emotion he experiences with a band or a type of music. He is grateful to have found in Fentress someone who likes to jam with him.

The American Cancer Society projects that 1.9 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020, with more than 600,000 cancer deaths. In 2020, an estimated 16,850 children and adolescents were diagnosed with cancer and 1,730 died of the disease. However, survival rates are expected to increase through time. 

MJHS’s team is looking to expand the pediatric program, and encourage New Yorkers to become volunteers. They are also looking for social workers and nurses to join them.