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Woman plays violin mid-surgery to ensure doctors hadn't damaged brain

Posted at 2:35 PM, Feb 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-19 14:35:30-05

LONDON, England – It’s like a scene straight out of “Grey’s Anatomy” – a patient at King’s College Hospital in London played the violin while surgeons removed a tumor from her brain.

The hospital says the unusual approach was taken to make sure that areas of Dagmar Turner’s brain that control delicate hand movement and coordination were not inadvertently damaged during the precise procedure.

The 53-year-old violinist was diagnosed in 2013 with a large, slow growing glioma after suffering a seizure during a symphony, according to the hospital.

Turner, who plays in Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra and various choral societies, underwent biopsy and then radiotherapy with her local specialist to keep the tumor at bay, but the hospital says it became apparent in the fall that the mass had grown, and it needed to be removed.

“Dagmar’s tumor was located in the right frontal lobe of her brain, close to an area that controls the fine movement of her left hand,” wrote the hospital in a release. “Precise and skilled use of this hand is essential for playing the violin as the fingers regulate the length of the strings by holding them against the fingerboard, producing different pitches.”

A consultant neurosurgeon at the hospital, Professor Keyoumars Ashkan, discussed Turner’s options and the two ended up bonding over their mutual passion for music. After Turner explained concerns she had over losing the ability to play the violin, Ashkan and the neurosurgical team devised a plan.

Prior to the operation, they spent two hours carefully mapping her brain to identify areas that were active when she played the violin and those responsible for controlling language and movement. They also decided that they would wake Turner mid- procedure so she could play, ensuring the surgeons didn’t damage any crucial areas of the brain.

During the operation, the team performed a craniotomy and then took Turner off anesthetic, so she could play the violin while her tumor was removed. Meanwhile, she was closely monitored by the anesthetists and a therapist.

After the surgery, Ashkan said his team performs about 400 tumor removals each year at the hospital, but this was the first time he’s had a patient play the instrument during a procedure.

“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,” said Ashkan. “We managed to remove over 90 percent of the tumor, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in her left hand.”

Turner later thanked the team for their work.

“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,” said Turner. “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.”

Three days after the procedure, the hospital says Turner was well enough to go home to her husband and 13-year-old son.