Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

Unlike many col­or­ful expres­sions in Eng­lish whose ori­gins are lost to us, the com­par­i­son of major­ly con­se­quen­tial tasks to brain surgery makes per­fect sense. One false move or mis­cal­cu­la­tion can result in instant death. The chances of irre­versible, life-alter­ing dam­age are high, should a scalpel slip or a sur­geon mis­take healthy brain tis­sue for dis­eased. This can hap­pen more read­i­ly than we might like to think. “It can be very dif­fi­cult to tell the dif­fer­ence between the tumor and nor­mal brain tis­sue,” admits Dr. Basil Enick­er, a spe­cial­ist neu­ro­sur­geon at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Cen­tral Hos­pi­tal in South Africa.

An oper­a­tion Enick­er led makes the pro­ce­dure seem like just as much an art as a sci­ence. Dur­ing an “awake cran­ioto­my,” the sur­geon and his team removed a tumor from the brain of Musa Manzi­ni, a South African jazz bassist.

To help them mon­i­tor the oper­a­tion as they went, they had him strum an acoustic gui­tar in the OR. “Pre­sum­ably, had he hit a wrong note,” writes Kimon de Greef at The New York Times, “it would have been an imme­di­ate sig­nal for the sur­geons to probe else­where.” He also car­ried on an extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion with one of the sur­geons, as you can see in the video above.

Such pro­ce­dures are not at all unusu­al. In a sim­i­lar case at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ MD Ander­son Can­cer Cen­ter, young musi­cian Robert Alvarez strummed his gui­tar while sur­geons removed a tumor near his speech and move­ment cen­ters. In 2014, de Greef reports, “a tenor in the Dutch Nation­al Opera, Ambroz Bajec-Lapa­jne, sang Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ as doc­tors removed a tumor. In 2015, the sax­o­phon­ist Car­los Aguil­era read music and per­formed dur­ing an oper­a­tion in Spain.” That same year, a Brazil­ian man played the Bea­t­les while he under­went brain surgery.

Not all of them are musi­cal, but awake cran­iotomies are so com­mon that Manzi­ni “watched quite a lot of YouTube videos,” he says, “to pre­pare myself men­tal­ly.” As for the shock of being con­scious while sur­geons poke around in your most pre­cious of bod­i­ly organs, mil­lime­ters from pos­si­ble paral­y­sis, etc., well… it’s cer­tain­ly more com­fort­able now than in some of the ear­li­est brain surg­eries we have on fos­sil record—some 8,000 years ago. One won­ders how Neolith­ic patients passed their time under the knife.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oliv­er Sacks Explains the Biol­o­gy of Hal­lu­ci­na­tions: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

This is Your Brain on Sex and Reli­gion: Exper­i­ments in Neu­ro­science

The Brains of Jazz and Clas­si­cal Musi­cians Work Dif­fer­ent­ly, New Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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