A saxophone in surgery

When doctors discovered a tumor in Dan Fabbio’s brain, he began a long journey involving a team of physicians, scientists, and a music professor that culminated with him awake and playing a saxophone as surgeons operated on him.

A professional musician and music teacher, Fabbio suddenly started to experience hallucinations, and a visit to a hospital led to a CAT scan that indicated a brain tumor. It appeared to be benign, but doctors were concerned about its proximity to a brain region that is responsible for music processing.

Fabbio was referred to the neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, who contacted Elizabeth Marvin, a music theorist who also specializes in music cognition, and together they developed a series of cognitive musical tests that Fabbio could perform while researchers were conducting brain scans. Using this information, the team produced a highly detailed three-dimensional map of Fabbio’s brain that would be used to help guide the surgeons in the operating room.

The surgeons wanted to know if they were successful in preserving Fabbio’s ability to perform music, so they decided to bring his saxophone into the operating room; once the tumor had been removed, they gave the go-ahead for Fabbio to play it.  “It made you want to cry,” said Marvin.  “He played it flawlessly and when he finished the entire operating room erupted in applause.”

This according to “Saxophonist is told to play while undergoing brain surgery” by Norman Lebrecht (Slipped disc 30 August 2017). Below, a brief documentary fleshes out the story.

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