Musician plays violin as surgeons operate on his brain
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, March 30, 2010 10:58AM EDT
Concert master Roger Frisch has played his violin in a lot of exciting places, from Carnegie Hall to Shanghai. But the oddest place he's likely ever played was while lying on an operating table as neurosurgeons inserted probes into his brain.
Frisch, a concert master with the Minnesota Orchestra, underwent brain surgery in a bid to stop painful tremors that had been plaguing his bowing hand and threatening his career.
Frisch says he developed the tremors two years ago, after arriving in China for a series of concerts.
"I noticed, I started playing, and I had a funny shake in my hand, which I'd never noticed before," he told CTV's Canada AM Tuesday from Minneapolis. "Of course, I just sort of chalked it up to the international trip. But that was the beginning of a very long and painful era where the tremor continued to get worse."
In June 2009, doctors diagnosed Frisch with something called "essential tremors," a degenerative neurological condition that occurs when sections of the brain that control movement start sending abnormal signals.
The condition most often affects hand movements, so that simple tasks such as drinking a glass of water eventually become difficult. For Frisch, the tremors were generally mild, but his right hand would shake uncontrollably when he held his bow up to his violin.
He hid his tremors for as long as he could, but as the condition progressed, the shaking became apparent when Frisch held out long notes in concerts.
It's not clear what causes the condition, though genetic mutations are thought to be to blame. While there are medications to control the condition, Frisch chose instead to try a surgery called deep brain stimulation.
So two months ago, he asked Mayo Clinic neurosurgeons to perform the surgery in which a long, thin electrical probe was inserted into his thalamus, the portion of the brain responsible for causing tremors.
In order for surgeons to know where precisely to place the probe, they needed to see Frisch's brain in action. So his surgeon, Dr. Kendall Lee, suggested Frisch stay awake during the surgery and play his violin while they operated.
Ahead of the surgery, the Mayo team had its engineering division create a special violin bow for the surgery so that surgeons could see how the small tremors affected the slight hand movements in Frisch's bowing.
"There was a wireless device that was attached to the bow of the violin that had what's called an accelerometer. And so we could see his tremor, as well as hear his violin," Dr. Lee explained from Rochester, Minn.
"Then we could turn on the electrode stimulation and see how it was affecting his violin playing."
Frisch admits it was odd to be playing the violin while lying on a table strapped to a dozen machines as surgeons operated on his brain.
"But it was very important, especially for me, to play violin during the surgery, because that motion was when the problem was most prevalent," he said.
"I have to tell you, I was quite excited to be in the procedure, to be awake during the procedure, to actually be a part of it and actually have a say in what was going on."
As soon as the surgery ended, Frisch says he felt better.
"As a matter of fact, a day after the surgery, I was home practising. Right away, I felt rather good. It took me a month to get all my strength back, but I'm back performing and feel fantastic," he said.
Now, two months later, Frisch says the number of tremors he's experiencing has fallen, though he will probably experience some tremors for the rest of his life. But Frisch is still performing and plans to continue doing so for many years to come.