Andrew Schulman is a New York
guitarist with a long history of playing in hotels, restaurants, small groups,
and formal concerts—even in Carnegie Hall, the White House, and Royal Albert
Hall. His memoir describes his experience as a patient in a Surgical Intensive
Care Unit (SICU), where he was briefly clinically dead. Six months later he
began a part-time career as a guitarist playing for patients and staff in that
very same SICU.
In July of 2009, Schulman underwent
surgery for a pancreatic tumor (luckily benign) but crashed afterward. He
suffered cardiac arrest and shortage of blood to his brain for 17 minutes.
Doctors induced a week-long medical coma, but his condition worsened. His wife
asked if he could hear music; he had brought a prepared iPod. When the opening
chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion played in his earbud, the computer monitor
showed that his vital signs stabilized, and he survived. The nurses called it a
Convinced of music’s healing power,
Schulman proposed that he return and play for patients and staff. He describes various
patients for whom he played over the next six years (with permission or changes
of name and details). He explains his approach to choosing music, pacing it, and
feeling hunches for what is right for a given patient. He interviews experts
and reads scientific papers in order to explain how the brain processes music. Music
reminds patients of their earlier, healthier lives; it coordinates right and left
brain; it brings calmness and peace.
Imaging studies show that music (and
emotionally charged literature) stimulate the brain regions associated with
reward—similar to euphoria, sex, and use of addictive drugs.
Schulman knew some 300 pieces from a
wide range of music, but his illness damaged his memory so that he could
recall only six of them. That meant his work relied on sheet music. Near the
end of the book, however, his “rehab” of playing three times a week, concentrating
on the music, and intending to help others—all this allowed his brain to heal, and
he began to memorize as before. Schulman consults with experts and undergoes
two brain scans and other studies that show the neuroplasticity of this brain
that allowed it to rewire and memorize once again.
Although Music Therapy is discussed
as an allied profession, Schulman is considered, rather, as a “medical musician” playing only in the SICU. Provision
of music, whether by Music Therapist or “medical musician,” is,
however, usually not covered by insurance and therefore not available to
There’s a six-page Afterword by Dr.
Marvin A. McMillen, who Schulman describes as “central” to his survival. McMillen
writes that being both a critical care doctor and a critical care patient himself
(polycystic kidney disease), he knows the importance of emotional support to
patients, healing environments, and the power of music. McMillen was also pivotal
in allowing Schulman to play in the SICU.
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