Violinist Plays Violin During His Own Brain Surgery

In 2009, Roger Frisch began experiencing hand tremors. For most people, this might be somewhat concerning — for Frisch, it was a roadblock to his life’s work. Frisch had been a professional musician for 40 years, and shaking hands impeded his ability to use the bow on his violin and produce a smooth sound.

Frisch was diagnosed with essential tremor, a nervous disorder. The disorder for most people is a relatively minor development — it just causes body parts to shake at times — but for Frisch, they were a potential career ender — not only does he play with the Minnesota Orchestra, but he’s also the associate concertmaster. Frisch found his solution at the Mayo Clinic Neural Engineering Lab. Doctors there agreed to administer deep brain stimulation.

In this procedure — often used to treat conditions such as Tourette syndrome, tremors, and Parkingson’s disease — a brain pacemaker is implanted in the brain. The pacemaker sends out electrical impulses that help control brain function. According to the World Health Organization, about 90% of brain injuries are classified as “mild” traumatic brain injuries.

It’s not uncommon for brain surgery patients to be kept awake during the ordeal in order to make sure everything is working correctly, and Frisch was no exception. What made his circumstance unique, though, was that the surgical crew had Frisch play a violin during surgery in order to make sure they were installing the pacemaker correctly.

The bow was hooked up to an accelerometer, which showed the doctors how his movements were connecting to brain activity in real time. Frisch’s playing allowed them to figure out whether they were correctly inserting electrodes that would stimulate the areas affecting the tremors. Frisch said that he noticed a difference after doctors inserted their first wire, but said that the tremors did not completely disappear. Doctors asked if he would be okay with a second wire, and the second wire successfully treated the tremors.

All in all, the surgery took about five hours to complete — with Frisch playing for most of the duration.

Was the surgery successful? So far, so good. The surgery took place earlier this year, and Frisch was able to play with the Minnesota Orchestra within three weeks of receiving the operation. Today, he says the tremor is “non-existent.”

“I remain very, very thankful every day that I have had the opportunity to have had this surgery,” said Frisch in the video of his surgery posted to the Mayo Clinic’s Youtube page.

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