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Patient plays saxophone while surgeons remove brain tumor

Music is not only a major part of Dan Fabbio’s life, as a music teacher it is his livelihood. So when doctors discovered a tumor located in the part of his brain responsible for music function, he began a long journey that involved a team of physicians, scientists, and a music professor and culminated with him awake and playing a saxophone as surgeons operated on his brain.

Fabbio’s case is the subject of a study published in the journal Current Biology that sheds new light on how music is processed in the brain.

In the spring of 2015, Fabbio was serving as substitute music teacher in a school in New Hartford, New York. He was in a small office at the school working on the capstone project for his Master’s degree in music education when he began to suddenly “see and hear things that I knew were not real.”

He became dizzy and nauseous and the episode prompted a visit to hospital in nearby Utica later that day. After undergoing a CAT scan, the doctors sat Fabbio down and told him they found a mass in his brain.

“I was 25 at the time and I don’t think there is any age when it is OK to hear that,” recalled Fabbio. “I had never had any health problems before and the first thing my mind went to was cancer.”

The good news was that the tumor appeared to be benign – in fact, it had probably been slowly growing since childhood – and was in an area of the brain that was relatively easy for surgeons to access. The bad news was that it was located in a region that is known to be important for music function.

Fabbio was referred to UR Medicine’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, M.D., Ph.D.

“When I met Dan for the first time, he expressed how concerned he was about losing his musical ability, because this frankly was the most important thing to him in his life, not only his livelihood, but his profession and his interest in life,” said Pilcher.