Brain surgery remains one of the riskiest procedures in the medical field. The slightest inaccuracy could permanently affect the patient’s ability to control just about every aspect of their body, including speech, memory, problem solving, and basic motor functions.
When Dagmar Turner came in to have a brain tumor removed from her right frontal lobe, she was worried that she might lose her ability to play the violin. As a world-renowned violinist, the stakes were just too high. So, Turner’s doctors decided to have her play her instrument throughout the procedure so they would know whether they were inhibiting her ability to play.
Go behind the scenes of this amazing story to see what it’s like to perform brain surgery on a patient who’s playing an instrument.
The Delicate Art of Music
53-year-old Turner wasn’t willing to undergo the operation if it meant giving up her love for playing music. As she told the press after the procedure, “The violin is my passion. I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old. The thought of losing my ability to play was heart-breaking.”
After diagnosing Turner, doctors realized that her tumor was dangerously close to the area that’s responsible for controlling delicate movements in her right hand, which she needs to play the violin. The tumor was just a few millimeters away from this sensitive region, so the slightest error could have left Turner music-less.
Dr. Keyoumars Ashkan, a neurosurgeon, eventually asked Turner to play the violin during the procedure, so they would know right away if they were compromising the sensitive region. Ashkan says the hospital performs around 400 tumor removals every year, and doctors often ask patients to remain alert during the procedure. Doctors may have patients perform language tests and other exercises to make sure they aren’t affecting their ability to lead a normal life, but this is the first time Ashkan and his team had a patient plan an instrument during the procedure.
A Successful Recovery
Turner plays with the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra in the United Kingdom, one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. If she’d have lost her ability to play the violin, she would’ve lost her means of earning a living, as well. In the end, her doctors were able to remove 90% of the tumor without affecting her motor functions, so she shouldn’t have to give up her love for music any time soon.
Turner returned home to her husband and son just three days after the procedure. “I’m hoping to be back with my orchestra very soon,” she added.
Are We Seeing a Trend?
Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time a patient has been asked to play an instrument during brain surgery. Back in 2017, guitar player Abhishek Prasad was asked to strum his instrument while undergoing brain surgery in India. The procedure was meant to correct the cramping in his fingers. According to his doctors, Prasad had suffered from a neurological condition called musical dystonia.
As Dr. Sharan Srinivasan, head neurosurgeon at the Bhagwayn Mahaveer Jain Hospital in Bangalore said afterward, “This is a form of a task-specific movement disorder, which comes out only when playing a musical instrument. In his case, … it was the cramping of three fingers, middle, ring and little, on his left hand because of the misfiring circuits in his brain.”
Dr. Srinivasan and his team used “radio-frequency ablation” to correct the condition. Similar to Turner’s case, Dr. Srinivasan needed real-time feedback to make sure he wasn’t affecting the patient’s ability to play music. Soon after the procedure, Prasad was back to playing the guitar without his fingers cramping up.
We may see more of these kinds of procedures in the future. If you have to perform brain surgery on a world-renowned musician, you might get to hear some beautiful music in the process.