Following pancreas surgery in 2009, Andrew Schulman of Local 802 (New York City) suffered cardiovascular collapse and was not expected to survive. When he came out of the coma, doctors called it a medical miracle. But Schulman, a professional musician and guitarist knew it was music that had reached him and brought him back.
At his bedside in the intensive care unit, Schulman’s wife, Wendy, thought music would comfort him in the ICU, but desperately hoped for more, that it just might be a lifeline. From his playlist she chose Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Within an hour, Schulman’s vital signs began to stabilize. In three days, he emerged from the coma. No one would know exactly how he survived the first night, but Schulman, whose case has been cited in medical journals and at major medical conferences, says, “The day I came back, six months after being in ICU, people said, ‘You’re famous in this hospital.’”
In his book, Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul, Schulman recounts his experience, from survival and recovery to his new calling as a medical musician. Drawing on the inspirational stories of the people he’s met, as well as experts in both music and neuroscience, Schulman reveals the powerful ways music helps patients negotiate illness. After his medical crisis, Schulman became a volunteer musician three days a week in the surgical ICU, and in 2011, was officially appointed resident artist of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center.
“The guitar is perfect for playing in this setting, especially if you need to make a modulation instantly,” Schulman says. Most patients in the ICU cannot make a request, but once in a while, someone will ask for Elvis or Gershwin. The right music, the right sound, makes a difference. A Bach prelude is typically calming. Music can make heart rhythms more regular, and lower stress hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Schulman says, “The key is finding the resonance frequency of a patient.”
Schulman has been working with trauma surgeon, Dr. Marvin A. McMillen, perioperative director at Berkshire Medical Center in Massachusetts, to develop a program of medical music specifically for post-op care. He expects to attract many professional musicians, but Schulman emphasizes it’s not a regular gig. It requires natural empathy, extreme motivation, and a sense of humor, plus the confidence to handle some rather complex medical information. He explains, “You’re the one who needs to keep up the spirits of patients. You have to play your Carnegie Hall best, all the while watching the patient’s face, hands, and feet because that’s where you can see agitation—checking the monitor and range of vital signs.”
Of his renewed passion for life and music, Schulman says, “It’s like being in three worlds—a triad of music, medicine, and writing. I’m using much more of my brain than I ever did before.” He suffered brain damage during cardiac arrest—retrograde and anterograde amnesia. In cases like this, although the nerve network for memory was damaged, the brain compensates by reorganizing the neural pathways to work around the deficiency. Called neuroplasticity, the neural rerouting allowed him to continue to play and read music, eventually relearning all the songs he had forgotten.
Schulman continues to play professionally with the Abaca String Band, his own quintet, and as a soloist. His steady union engagements include landmark New York City venues, the Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel, The Mark Hotel, and The InterContinental/Barclay. He’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Improv, and the Royal Albert Hall in London. His CDs include The Baroque Style, Lullabies, Reveilles, (and Siesta!), and two Live from Chautauqua recordings.
Schulman was just out of college in 1975 when he joined Local 802. A year before his surgery, which coincided with the 2009 recession, his wife learned she had breast cancer. He says, “If it hadn’t been for emergency relief fund of Local 802, if they hadn’t helped us after my surgery, I don’t know what we would have done. I might have been evicted, might have lost my apartment. They helped us through a crucial three months. I’m forever grateful.”
Back to work, in a new role, Schulman reflects on the turning point in his own ICU experience, when he heard St. Matthew Passion. He says, “The greatest grace a musician can have is to play for a patient who’s in a critical care unit. Instead of hearing the cold harsh beeps and alarms of a medical machine and impersonal voices, they hear a beautiful flow of Bach or a melody or tune that’s soothing.”