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A man needed a brain tumor removed. He played the sax during surgery.

The Washington Post 10/20/2022 Julian Mark

Earlier this month, the soothing sounds of a saxophone streamed from an operating room in Rome’s Paideia International Hospital. The music wasn’t coming from a speaker, but rather from a patient playing the woodwind on the operating table as a team of surgeons worked to remove a tumor from his brain.

Yes, he was awake — and remained so throughout the nine-hour surgery. Christian Brogna, a neurosurgeon who led the operation, told The Washington Post that the 35-year-old saxophonist’s performance was necessary for the team to navigate the man’s brain and avoid damaging the areas he needed to continue playing the instrument.

“Each person is unique because each brain’s unique,” Brogna said, explaining that he needed to understand the patient’s “wishes” and lifestyle to tailor a successful surgery.

Patients staying awake for brain surgeries is not unusual. It can help surgeons map their brains and work around areas responsible for speech, memory and important lifestyle functions while the use of local anesthetics allows them to remain awake without feeling pain. Some may read or answer questions, and in recent years, patients have been filmed playing the guitar and the violin and even singing opera music during surgeries. There have also been other saxophonists who’ve played on the operating table.

Man plays guitar through his own brain surgery

Brogna, who said he performs around 50 awake surgeries per year, added that playing a musical instrument integrates numerous highly complex brain functions like hand-eye coordination, motor skills and even math.

The saxophonist’s tumor, he said, was located in precisely the regions responsible for bodily movement, which are not easy to operate on. What made this patient’s surgery especially tricky was that he was left-handed. His brain structure was different from that of a right-handed person and therefore more difficult to map, Brogna said.

The man, whom Brogna could identify only by the initials G.Z., played the theme of the 1970 film “Love Story,” as well as the Italian national anthem, during portions of the surgery, Brogna said. His team studied those songs carefully before the operation, he said, because any wrong note, change in rhythm or abrupt pause could mean the surgeon was probing an area that needed to be avoided.

The Oct. 10 operation, which involved an international team of more than 10 medical professionals, was ultimately successful, Brogna said. Tests showed the tumor had been completely removed, he said, and the patient went home three days later to his wife and two children. All of his functions, including his saxophone playing, were normal.

Brogna said the man wished to tell news outlets that a brain tumor operation was “not necessarily a bad experience” — that he was comfortable and calm throughout the procedure and trusted Brogna and his team. Brogna, for his part, spoke of the “very strong connection” and sense of collaboration he felt with this and other patients during the operations.

He also said that, in addition to aiding the man’s surgery, the saxophone playing helped further his understanding of the human brain — and will help him with future operations.

“Each surgery of this kind is a window into the complexity of the brain, and we learn from all these surgeries continuously,” he said.

“This was the saxophone now,” he added, “but it can be anything important for the patient.”

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