On this Thanksgiving Day, there’s so much to be thankful for, including a young girl whose spirit lives on in the form of a song she helped write through Shands’ Arts in Medicine program.
Brianna Medina didn’t realize it at the time, but the 8-year-old girl was giving the world a precious, lasting gift four years ago when she co-wrote the song “Thankful for Love” with Ricky Kendall.
I love my mother, and I love my dad
I love my brother, and all the good times we had
I love my fish Billy, his scales are so blue,
I love my dog Smokey, I like to give him all my food
And, ooh, ooh, ooh, I’m thankful for love ...
Brianna passed away on May 8, 2014, while awaiting a heart transplant at UF Health Shands. Kendall, a Musician in Residence for the Shands’ Arts in Medicine program, wanted to do something significant in her memory.
Last week, the singer/songwriter stepped up to the mic at Heartwood Soundstage and, with guitar in hand, sang “Thankful for Love” to an approving audience during an album-release party. The song is the title track to that album.
“This is an album I’ve wanted to write as a companion, especially to a child in the hospital and to their families,” Kendall said. “The idea is not just bouncy and happy, forget-about-your-troubles kind of stuff. It’s more like ‘How do you feel and how can you get through that with some music and art?’
“And that’s what the Arts in Medicine program is, getting through the hospital experience and connecting with a more positive place.
All eight songs on the CD were produced in conjunction with UF pediatric patients through the Arts in Medicine program. However, it was Brianna’s catchy tune that received top billing.
I open my eyes and all that I see
makes me smile so big, I have to show teeth
The teeth that I chew with makes me thankful for my food
I’m thankful for the sun, and I’m thankful for the moon
I’m thankful for myself and I’m thankful for you
and I’m thankful for God, who’s with me in my heart. …
But to fully appreciate the song and how it came about, you have to go back to early 2014, shortly after Brianna was admitted to Shands with restrictive cardiomyopathy (RCM). It’s a rare condition that renders the heart unable to function properly.
Kendall was assigned to be Brianna’s Musician in Residence. Brianna’s mother, Maria Perez Medina, said her daughter tested Kendall from the beginning.
“She actually challenged Ricky for her birthday in January,” Medina said. “She told him, ‘OK, if you can play anything, can you play me these two songs from Frozen that I’m so obsessed with?’ He said, ‘I’m not familiar with that.’ And she’s like, ‘OK, when you memorize it, you can come and visit me next time.'”
Brianna’s boldness caught her mom off-guard.
“I’m going, ‘Oh, my goodness, honey!’ But she just sort of meant it, not sarcastic but like ‘Hey, if we’re going to work together.’ …”
Kendall responded to the challenge and sang the two Frozen songs for Brianna on her eighth birthday on Jan. 16.
“She was overjoyed!” Medina said. “He played a full acoustic version, and I do remember her saying something like ‘I kind of like it better than the original.'”
Brianna and Ricky bonded, as Brianna had already done with Artist in Residence Amy Bucciarelli, her visual arts therapist.
Kendall said Brianna had her good days and not-so-good days as her heart grew weaker.
“One day I showed up in her room and she was feeling down,” he said. “She was asking a lot of questions, trying to figure out how she felt. I just said, ‘Well, let’s think about what we’re thankful for. Would that be all right with you?’ And she said ‘OK.'”
As soon as Brianna began listing things she was thankful for, Kendall took out his phone and started typing.
“I told her things I was thankful for, then she told me more things she was thankful for,” he said. “Pretty soon, by the end of the visit, she had a smile on her face, she was thinking about her family, and her dog, and her fish and God and love — you know, all the things that got her through the day.”
Medina remembers Kendall telling Brianna, “We can make this into your own song.” “He would tell me ‘We’re working on something special, but I can’t share it yet.'”
Several weeks later, in the spring, Kendall sang the song to Brianna in her hospital bed after she came out of a difficult surgery.
“It was a very acoustic version with just Ricky’s music to go with her lyrics,” Medina said. “She was so happy to hear her song.”
Brianna’s father, Brian Medina, recorded the song on his cellphone. When Brianna lapsed into a coma, her father would place the cellphone on her pillow and play “Thankful for Love” over and over.
“And then when she passed,” Maria Perez Medina said, “Ricky had a recorded version that we played at her service.”
With the recent release of the “Thankful for Love” album, the Medinas have something that is meaningful and cherished.
“The full album production of the song is overwhelming. Her words became this huge gift to us and for everybody,” Mrs. Medina said.
“As grieving parents, we don’t get to see our children grow, but if we’re doing something like this, remaining involved and giving back just a little bit of her growing up with us, it’s almost like the song growing up with her and having an impact.”
Medina said that her daughter was a kindred spirit who embraced all forms of art.
“Those were Brianna’s three favorite things to do — visual arts, singing and storytelling,” she said. “With all the trauma that came her way medically, I wanted her to have a sort of positive side where she could express herself, be herself, be the child we knew her to be.”
Needless to say, Medina is grateful for the Arts in Medicine program at Shands.
Tina Mullen, director of the AIM program, said Kendall’s work with Brianna is a shining example of what can be achieved.
“The Arts in Medicine program is how you can transform an experience through art,” she said. “Ricky has brought it forth in a tangible way. His process of going in and taking his artistic skills and just being open to what the patient is learning and transform that into an art form — it’s medicine. It takes people to a new space.”
Mullen realizes that outcomes are not always positive ones.
“For the Medina family, it’s unfortunate that their child didn’t survive the experience, but they survived the experience because they have this legacy of her now as a loving, giving artist. They hold onto these memories, they share these memories, they made this whole project possible, they see the importance of it.”
Mullen added: “It’s a story of thanks, it’s a story of giving. This is truly a story of Thanksgiving.”
— Noel Leroux
The children’s album “Thankful for Love” is available for a $20 donation to UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine’s Brianna’s Hope Fund.