Insight & Analysis

Brain surgery whilst playing the violin

Published: Feb 2020

Last week, King’s College Hospital in London shared a video of a patient playing her violin whilst having a brain tumour removed.

Person playing violin

Dagmar Turner, 52, a former management consultant from the Isle of Wight, was diagnosed in 2013 with a large grade 2 (slow growing) glioma after suffering a seizure during a symphony. After undergoing a biopsy and then radiotherapy to keep the tumour at bay, it became apparent in 2019 that the tumour had grown and become more aggressive. Turner, who has a 13-year-old son, was keen to have surgery to remove it.

The tumour was located in the right frontal lobe of her brain, close to an area that controls the fine movement of her left hand. For Turner, an accomplished violinist, this could have been extremely problematic due to the precise and skilled use of the left hand needed for playing the violin.

Turner explained her concerns about losing the ability to play to her Consultant Neurosurgeon, Professor Keyoumars Ashkan – who also has a passion for music – and so the neurosurgical team at King’s devised a plan.

They spent two hours before the operation carefully mapping Dagmar’s brain to identify the areas that were active when playing the violin and those responsible for controlling language and movement. They also planned to wake her during the procedure so she could play, ensuring the surgeons did not damage the areas of the brain that controlled hand movements specifically when playing the instrument.

Following the procedure Prof Ashkan said, “King’s is one of the largest brain tumour centres in the UK. We perform around 400 resections (tumour removals) each year, which often involves rousing patients to carry out language tests, but this was the first time I’ve had a patient play an instrument.

“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% of the tumour, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in her left hand.”

Dagmar added, “The violin is my passion; I’ve been playing since I was ten 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.”

Three days after the procedure Dagmar was well enough to go home to her husband and son. She will continue to be monitored by her local hospital. You can see the video here, and don’t worry, you don’t see anything graphic!

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