Violinist plays Mahler and Gershwin as surgeons remove brain tumour

A patient at a British hospital played Mahler and Gershwin on the violin while a tumour was removed from her brain so that surgeons could preserve her ability to play music and honour her 40-year passion for the instrument.

Dagmar Turner, 53, a former management consultant from the Isle of Wight, played her violin during an operation to remove a tumour from the right frontal lobe of her brain — close to the area that controls the fine movement of her left hand.

To prevent any damage to her violin skills, Keyoumars Ashkan, consultant neurosurgeon at King’s College Hospital in London, came up with a plan: they would map her brain, open the skull and then get her to play as they removed the tumour.

Violinists need to be able to make very precise movements with their hands. The fingers regulate the length of the violin’s strings as they hold them against the fingerboard, which produces different pitches. 

Before the operation, the surgical team discussed with Turner the idea of waking her mid-procedure so she could play. That way, surgeons could ensure they did not damage any crucial areas of the brain that controlled Turner’s delicate hand movements specifically when playing the instrument.

While surgeons cut away part of her brain, Turner played music by Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin’s jazz classic Summertime and pieces by Spanish songwriter and singer Julio Iglesias.

“This was the first time I’ve had a patient play an instrument,” said Ashkan, a fellow music lover and accomplished pianist.

“We managed to remove over 90 per cent of the tumour, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in her left hand.”

Violinist hopes to return to orchestra soon

Turner thanked the surgeons.

“The violin is my passion; I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old,” she said. “The thought of losing my ability to play was heartbreaking.”

Turner, who plays in the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra and various choral societies, left the hospital three days later and hopes to return to her orchestra soon. 

Last year, surgeons in the Netherlands published a case report on a professional violin player who played the instrument during surgery to remove a tumour in the left motor area.

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