How one mom turned the loss of her daughter into a legacy of music, healing for sick kids

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After Nikki McCarthy lost her daughter Sam to a rare blood
disorder, she channeled her grief into a charity that honors
Sam’s memory by providing the healing power of music to young
hospital patients.

Hoda Kotb learned of Nikki and her work as part of TODAY’s
Summer of Yes series, which let Hoda
combine two of her loves — music and surprises.

See Hoda's heartwarming surprise for mom who helps kids
heal with music

Play Video -
6:22

See Hoda's heartwarming surprise for mom who helps kids
heal with music

Play Video -
6:22

In this case, the music comes from a special song Nikki’s
daughter sang for her mom. And later, Nikki was then surprised
by the musician who recorded the radio hit.

At the center of it all is Sam McCarthy, who spent years in and
out of hospitals because of fanconi anemia, a rare genetic
disorder.

“She was spunky. She was very strong for a teeny, tiny person,”
Nikki said. “My husband said she had an electric personality.”

Courtesy of the
McCarthy family / TODAY

Music therapy during her hospital visits helped Sam McCarthy
through painful treatments.

That strength and temperament helped Sam get through a bone
marrow transplant when she was 11.

“When you're in a bone marrow transplant unit, it's the
equivalent of maximum security prison in a hospital,” said
Nikki’s husband and Sam’s dad, Dan McCarthy. “You know, music
was that ticket to escape that world.”

A bright spot to Sam’s treatment were visits by Brian Schreck,
a music therapist the hospital brought in.

For Mother’s Day, Schreck helped Sam record a hit song by her
mom’s favorite artist, Mat Kearney.

“I have this piece of music that — it’s her voice. And at the
beginning of it, she says, ‘This one’s for you, Mom.’ And then
sings this song that I'll have it forever,” Nikki said. “It’s
just a special gift to have that.”

TODAY

Nikki McCarthy and her daughter Sam.

She noted that the song Sam sings, “On and On,” includes a line
that says, "Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy."

“It was the story of what we went through,” Nikki said. “It was
horrible, but I got this beautiful life, and she was a
beautiful kid, and it was worth everything, even for a short
time.”

After Sam died eight years ago, Nikki started Sam’s Fans, a nonprofit
organization that raises money for music and art therapy for
children like her daughter
.

“Nik was able to turn what is incredible pain and create
something that brings joy to both children and their parents,”
her husband Dan said.

He and the couple’s three sons have raised more than $150,000
for Ohio hospitals to bring music and art into the hallways.

“Medicine can heal the infection, but the music changes your
soul and it heals your soul,” Nikki said.

TODAY

Mat Kearney performs "On and On," a song Sam McCarthy
recorded for her mom as a Mother's Day gift.

TODAY spent two days at a hospital documenting the impact of
her charity work, ending the shoot with a musical performance
that included a surprise for Nikki: Mat Kearney, the singer
whose lyrics captured the McCarthy family’s story.

“I heard the story and, yeah, it stuck with me," the musician
said, describing it as "one of those things that you don't
forget.”

Dan, Sam's father, said Kearney represents "a living
connection" for his wife, "back to this little girl that she
loved with all of her heart."

“When Sam looks down, and every time a child is laughing or
smiles, I think she would be thrilled happy to know that her
mom is still helping other people. Because that's what Sam
would do," he said.

Nikki said she senses her daughter around her constantly, and
she knows she'd be happy with the legacy charity her life
created.

“You always want your child to make an impact on the world. She
didn't have very much time to do that,” Nikki said. “This gives
her life meaning. I think she would be really proud. I hope.”

To learn more about Sam's Fans, visit samsfans.org.

Follow Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter or
Facebook.

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