Watch this musician play violin during brain surgery to remove a tumor

Dan Broadbent

Dagmar Turner played violin as neurosurgeons performed surgery on her brain to remove a brain tumor.

Surgeons at King's College Hospital in London, England woke up violinist Dagmar Turner as they worked to remove a brain tumor.

The 53 year old plays in the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra, as well as other ensembles, was diagnosed with a large grade 2 (slow growing) glioma in 2013 after she had a seizure during a symphony. In fall of 2019, doctors realized the tumor had become more aggressive, and they decided that surgery was the best treatment option.

Turner expressed concern about being able to play violin post-surgery. After spending two hours mapping her brain to see which areas are active while playing violin and while speaking, they spoke with Turner about the notion of waking her up mid-surgery so that she could play violin. Doctors said that this would help ensure that they did not damage any areas of the brain that controlled Turner's hand movements.

In a press release, the doctors said:

We knew how important the violin is to Dagmar so it was vital that we preserved function in the delicate areas of her brain that allowed her to play. We managed to remove over 90 percent of the tumour, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in her left hand.

“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 but, being a musician himself, Prof Ashkan understood my concerns. He and the team at King’s went out of their way to plan the operation – from mapping my brain to planning the position I needed to be in to play. Thanks to them I’m hoping to be back with my orchestra very soon.”

NPR reports:

Brad Mahon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, was one of the scientists who mapped the music teacher's brain. Mahon said that surgery was particularly intense because it was in an area of the brain that "can actually lead to loss of the knowledge of how to conduct music, how to understand music." Ultimately, that surgery was successful too.

Mahon said the basic features of an "awake craniotomy" — the type of brain surgery where patients are awake in order to avoid damage to critical brain areas — have remained largely unchanged for decades. For example, doctors have long used simple tests such as asking a patient to name what they're seeing in pictures to make sure language ability is preserved.

Mahon went on to explain that doctors can now map patients' brains before surgery using functional MRI, creating a more personalized brain map for that patient in advance than was available in the past.

Brain mapping also can help determine what kinds of functions are at risk during a brain surgery. Having a "personalized brain map," Mahon said, matters a lot when surgeons are making "millimeter by millimeter decisions" that could determine whether a person can even communicate after an operation, let alone follow their passions.

Turner was released from the hospital three days after her procedure, and will be monitored by her local hospital.

Video/cover via King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

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