Presenter recovers from brain haemorrhage after being played music

Music really CAN perform miracles: As a Radio 3 presenter recovers from a brain haemorrhage after being played classic music, read these astonishing stories of people who were nursed back to health through the power of song

For every minute of the two and half weeks that BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill spent in a coma earlier this year, music was played to her through a small speaker next to her intensive-care bed.

Friends and family had compiled a playlist and, as a Royal College of Music graduate as well as successful presenter, her musical tastes are wide and varied — Bach, jazz, Renaissance music and funk.

As the weeks passed and the music played on, and on, her family and friends were told to prepare for the worst. To accept that, after a massive brain haemorrhage caused by a previously undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation (AVM) — a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in her brain — Clemency’s brain function might never recover. That she might never understand, speak, see or walk again, far less play her violin again in concert halls around the world.

British actress, novelist, journalist and violinist Clemency Burton-Hill, pictured outside the Royal Albert Hall, London, UK

But then on one bedside visit, Andrew Staples, a British opera singer and close friend, noticed that Clemency’s toes were tapping along — to Brahms.

‘I remember it struck me as a non-typical piece to inspire toe-tapping,’ he told the BBC.

Soon after, on the 17th day, Clemency, 39, seemed to make a choice about whether to give up or fight back.

As she put it herself. ‘It was literally: “I can do this, I’m going to get through this.”’

And while she insists the medical staff at New York’s Mount Sinai West hospital were heroic, and the treatment she received first class, she says it was music that pulled her back towards life at that crucial moment.

And since then, it has been music that has helped her navigate the months of rehabilitation — as she relearned how to see, speak and walk again.

‘Music is the opposite of despair,’ she said. ‘It’s a clichéd idea that music is beyond language, but from what I’ve experienced in my own brain, I truly know that now.’

Clemency’s story is not unique.

Clemency Burton-Hill is pictured with US actor Alec Baldwin. For every minute of the two and half weeks that BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill spent in a coma earlier this year, music was played to her through a small speaker next to her intensive-care bed

There have been seemingly endless stories over the years of patients stirred from deep comas by a blast of their favourite musicians — whether it be James Blunt, Green Day, Robbie Williams, Adele, The Rolling Stones or rousing show tunes.

Choirmaster Barry Todd, from Coventry, who fell into a ten-day coma after suffering an aortic aneurysm in 2014, suddenly woke up when his wife Carol played a recording of his beloved Midland Voices choir singing Disney classics at his bedside.

In fact, when Give A Little Whistle — a tune he’d been rehearsing with the choir when he fell ill — came on, Barry, 64, started to mouth and whistle along to the music and went on to make a good recovery.

Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees had a similar tale. He fell into a coma after contracting pneumonia but emerged from it 12 days later when family members played a slew of his favourite songs, including Roy Orbison’s Crying, which made him — and everyone at his bedside — sob.

Sam Carter was 17 years old when The Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was released in 1965 — and 60 when it brought him out of a coma. Despite having been written off by the doctors, when he heard the song on a pair of headphones his wife had provided, he said he had ‘a burst of energy and knew I had a lot more life left in me and that’s when I woke up’.

All of which are, of course, lovely feel-good stories. But can a nice bit of Beethoven really help fix the brain? Could a Queen hit (apparently, Bohemian Rhapsody is the most likely to help) bring someone back from the brink where cutting-edge medicine cannot?

Surely, it is simply coincidence. Isn’t it more likely the patient recovered naturally while the music was on a constant loop by their bed? Apparently not.

Over the past 20 years, intensive-care investigators from all around the world have reported that playing familiar and important music — providing a ‘salient stimulus’ to coma patients — can significantly boost their chances of regaining consciousness.

Clinical proof has been established by measuring comatose patients’ brain activity with monitors such as EEG machines, and finding tell-tale upticks in overall brain activity while their favourite music is played.

As a result, doctors now routinely recommend that people visiting coma victims play music that has special meaning to them.

But how can a Robbie Williams anthem touch the parts an intensive care unit team can’t reach? What on earth is going on in these sleeping brains that only Adele can get through to?

Fabien Perrin — a French neuroscientist at the University of Lyon — has mapped cerebral activity in several coma patients and found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the hearing parts of their brains (the auditory cortexes) light up when familiar music plays.

Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees is pictured at his home in 2012. Gibb fell into a coma after contracting pneumonia but emerged from it 12 days later when family members played a slew of his favourite songs, including Roy Orbison’s Crying, which made him — and everyone at his bedside — sob

What makes this therapeutically useful is that these brain regions seem to be involved with maintaining our sense of self — our ‘autobiographical memory’ in scientific terms, meaning a favourite memory really can somehow cut through the fog.

Perrin’s experiments involved playing the Eagles’ Hotel California and the Blues Brothers’ Everybody Needs Somebody To Love to comatose patients. These weren’t necessarily personal music favourites, just well known.

Even so, he found that after the music was played, patients were more likely to demonstrate a higher level of response on brain-scans to hearing their own names being called.

While anyone in a coma can potentially benefit from the right music, musicians with brain injuries, such as Clemency, are thought to be at a particular advantage. Paul Robertson, a leading violinist and founder of the Medici String Quartet, who became severely ill and fell into a coma in 2008, claims that it was the sound of Indian ragas and John Tavener’s music which guided him back to consciousness.

Just being a professional musician — such as Robertson, or Robin Gibb, or Clemency — may give you a neurological head start in recovering from brain injury.

Studies have shown that those who started playing music in childhood have an unusually thick corpus callosum — the bundle of nerves which acts as an information superhighway between the left and right sides of the brain — which may help an injured brain rebuild itself more effectively.

It might do this by being able to tap into undamaged sectors of the brain to acquire motor skills — such as speech and movement — that would otherwise have remained lost.

On top of all that, a musician’s precious instrument may also have magically curative powers — as Clemency has discovered.

In 2009, the journal Brain Injury reported the story of a 20-year-old oboist, called Sara, who fell into a river, nearly drowned and her brain suffered severe oxygen starvation.

To draw her from the coma, her oboe teacher placed Sara’s oboe in her hand and played tapes of Sara’s past performances.

According to medics at the Idaho Neurological Institute, it worked. Furthermore, in the years of rehabilitation that followed, Sara’s oboe-playing was crucial to her recovery.

Similarly, Clemency’s dogged violin practice — with the help of her great friend, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti — has helped boost her recovery beyond her doctors’ wildest expectations.

‘I really believe music is a part of my recovery because it uses both sides of the brain. It’s as though it trains your brain to be ambidextrous. Sometimes, it is the thing that gives me solace. And sometimes it’s the thing that helps me to get up and fight,’ she said.

So next time you read a fantastical story of how Robbie Williams, Madonna, Adele, or even The Krankies, have helped bring someone back from the brink of death, don’t smirk, scoff or sneer.

Instead, tell your nearest and dearest what your favourite song is — however embarrassing —because one day, it might just save your life.

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