I just finished an inspiring book called Waking the Spirit. The author Andrew Schulman is a musician who nearly died in July, 2009. At age 57, a CT scan revealed what appeared to be pancreatic cancer. After undergoing an operation to remove the cancer, the surgeon informed Schulman’s wife Wendy that the mass was found to be benign. But soon after receiving this good news, Schulman suddenly went into cardiac arrest. A blood transfusion had caused anaphylactic shock. On the 3rd day, Schulman was in the intensive care unit (ICU), Wendy began to wonder if her husband had lost his will to live. She told the ICU physician “if there’s one thing I know about my husband, it’s that he loves music more than anything else. It’s his passion. . . At this point music is the only thing that could get through to him.” With the physician’s permission, she inserted one earbud into her right ear and the other earbud into Schulman’s left ear. She then played his favorite piece, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Schulman writes that
Bach’s music began spinning into our ears. Ninety seconds after the flutes and oboes began playing that mesmerizing melody, slowly lifting ever upward, the voices entered, floating heavenward ‘Come, ye daughters, help me lament, Behold? Whom? The Bridegroom. Behold him! How? Like a lamb. Behold! What? Behold his patience. Behold!’ As the chorus sang, my bride was sitting with her face inches from her bridegroom, sharing the music that was bonding us together in the darkest moment of our lives. Bach’s masterpiece, some of the most glorious music ever written, tells a story centered on the most basic of human emotions: love, hate, betrayal, and redemption. . . . The music reached me.
Soon afterward Schulman’s vital signs began to improve. By the next day, the ICU physician felt that he was “out of the woods.” The nurses who cared for him later called it the St. Matthew Miracle.
After recovering, Schulman was inspired to use his musical talents to help other people likewise afflicted by illness. Six months after his own hospitalization, he returned to Beth Israel Medical Center to play the guitar for patients in the ICU. Soon he became a fixture there, integrating his own mode of healing with the rest of the care team.
The rest of Waking the Spirit consists of stories in which Schulman’s music played an important role in patients’ recoveries. Along the way, I learned more about the history of music in medicine and field of music therapy. In the end, Schulman’s service to others generated his own recovery. Due to the brain injury from his cardiac arrest, Schulman discovered that after his hospitalization, he could no longer memorize music. Then one day, he “awoke to a strange sensation in my head. It literally felt as if my brain was tingling.” He suddenly began to be able to play music by memory again. When Schulman presented his case to a neuroscientist, he was told his work in the ICU was the best possible type of rehabilitation for his injured brain. The researcher told him that
I think by committing yourself to playing in the ICU you forced your brain to rewire. The consistent and deliberate exercise every day of what you had to do to become what you call a medical musician, the constant auditory attention, the intense thinking as you watched the patients’ responses and the changes, or lack of changes, in the vital signs monitors over their beds, your constant awareness of all the sounds surrounding you so you could be attuned to other needs should an emergency arise, and, very importantly, making sure all your fine motor functions were at their best to guide you in making soothing and healing music for your patients–all these factors combined to force different parts of your brain to make new connections to each other. . . You did repair your own brain and gave yourself an upgrade at the same time.
Schulman writes that “I’d gone back to the ICU to avoid survivor’s guild and to give thanks for a great gift after having my life saved. I stayed because I found I loved this new experience of helping and healing others through music. I wound up healing myself as well.”
Here is a link to Waking the Spirit if you’d like to buy it or check it out at the library. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/andrew-schulman/waking-the-spirit/