February 21, 2020

Watch this woman play the violin—during her own brain surgery

Daily Briefing

    When Dagmar Turner, who plays violin for the Isle of Wright Symphony Orchestra, learned she needed brain surgery to remove a tumor, doctors devised a way to help ensure the surgery wouldn't affect Turner's musical skills—by asking her to play the violin during the operation.

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    Turner's tumor

    In 2013, Turner experienced a seizure at a symphony. She sought treatment, and doctors discovered a tumor that was slowly growing in the brain's right frontal lobe. But surgery was risky because the tumor was near the portion of Turner's brain that provides her left hand with fine motor control, which she needs to play the violin.

    At first, Turner tried radiotherapy to treat the tumor. However, last year it become clear that the tumor was still growing, and doctors advised Turner that she needed surgery.

    Doctors' 'vital' task to preserve Turner's fine motor skills

    Turner said it would be "heartbreaking" if she lost her ability to play the violin. "The violin is my passion. I've been playing since I was 10 years old," she said.

    So Keyoumars Ashkan, the neurosurgeon at King's College Hospital in London who oversaw Turner's surgery, came up with a plan he'd never tried before: He'd have Turner play her violin during the procedure.

    Before the surgery, medical experts spent two hours mapping Turner's brain to determine which parts were active while she was playing violin. "We knew how important the violin is to [Turner] so it was vital that we preserved function in the delicate areas of her brain that allowed her to play," Ashkan said.

    Then, Ashkan and colleagues set out to remove as much of the tumor as possible while ensuring Turner still could play. CBS News shared a video of the procedure on YouTube:

    Ashkan said although it's common to test patients' speech skills during brain surgery, this was the first time he'd tested a patient's musical abilities. "We perform around 400 [tumor] resections each year, which often involves rousing patients to carry out language tests, but this was the first time I've had a patient play an instrument," Ashkan said.

    The results

    Ashkan said he and his team "managed to remove over 90% of the tumor, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in [Turner's] left hand."

    He added that the outcome highlights advancements in how surgeons are able to treat brain tumors. "Twenty years ago the priority would have been to preserve basic movement in a patient," Ashkan said. "We wouldn't have dreamed of being able to protect the finest, most delicate, most absolute, critical executive aspect of movement needed in a violinist."

    As for Turner, she said she hopes to be playing with the Isle of Wright Symphony Orchestra again soon (Knowles, Washington Post, 2/19; Catherman/Lear, CNN, 2/19; Culver, USA Today, 2/19; King's College Hospital release, 2/18).

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