Man Plays Saxophone During His Life-Saving Brain Surgery

A passionate music teacher continued playing his saxophone while doctors operated on a brain tumor. The activity helped surgeons monitor the affected area in real time, a technique they hope to use with other patients.

Music Teacher Dan Fabbio was 25 when he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The tumor needed to be removed, but the mass was sitting on the part of his brain responsible for music function and ability. Having the surgery to remove the tumor may also mean losing Fabbio’s passion in life. But surgeons had a wild idea: why not have Fabbio play his instrument while undergoing the surgery to monitor his musical ability in real time? The experimental surgery could also be used a research project to help clients understand just how the brain processes music.

Surgeons create a 3D map of Patient's Brain

The surgical team was spearheaded by the University of Rochester Medical Center's Web Pilcher. Pilcher is a professor of neuromedicine and chair of the department of neurosurgery. Pilcher collaborated with associate professor Brad Mahon, and the pair had developed a brain mapping program for potential brain surgery patients. Pilcher described the idea saying, "Removing a tumor from the brain can have significant consequences depending upon its location. Both the tumor itself and the operation to remove it can damage tissue and disrupt communication between different parts of the brain. It is, therefore, critical to

Pilcher described the idea saying, "Removing a tumor from the brain can have significant consequences depending upon its location. Both the tumor itself and the operation to remove it can damage tissue and disrupt communication between different parts of the brain. It is, therefore, critical to understand as much as you can about each individual patient before you bring them into the operating room so we can perform the procedure without causing damage to parts of the brain that are important to that person's life and function." 

Each person's brain is constructed slightly differently, so an individual brain map, helps surgeons understand the exact location of different neural areas. Pilcher and Mahon invited music cognition expert from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music Elizabeth Marvin to assist them in mapping Fabbio's brain. The three scientists created series of tests that allowed them to build an accurate 3d map of Fabbio's brain to assist them during the surgery.

The Surgical Logistics of a Saxophone

Fabbio’s chosen instrument, the saxophone, posed a number of interesting problems for the team. The instrument requires a lot of lung power. How could he play the wind instrument when lying on his side with his lungs compressed? Musicians also need deep and sustained breaths to play the sax well. However, that much oxygen would also pose a risk to the exposed brain, as this lung activity could cause the exposed brain to protrude from his open skull. 

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The answer to these problems came not from medicine or engineering but from music. Fabbio decided to play a version of a Korean folk song, devised by Marvin herself that required only shallow breaths. Marvin said, "The whole episode struck me as quite staggering that a music theorist could stand in an operating room and somehow be a consultant to brain surgeons. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most amazing days of my life because if felt like all of my training was suddenly changing someone's life and allowing this young man to retain his musical abilities."

During the operation, Fabbio performed the humming and language tests the team had created for him. Once the tumor was removed, but while his skull was still open, he was asked to play the sax to ensure the surgery had been a success. "It made you want to cry," Marvin said. "He played it flawlessly and when he finished the entire operating room erupted in applause."

Doubting this story? See for yourself. You can watch the full operation -- including Fabbio's performance -- in the video below. 

The team's research was published in the journal Current Biology.

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