This is an amazing story about a stroke survivor, who is an associate professor of music at SUNY Buffalo State University , a conductor of the school’s Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as the Amherst Chamber Ensemble and Buffalo’s Chopin Singing Society. He also plays the violin and bass.
On Dec. 2, 2016, Thomas Witakowski, awoke to find himself in excruciating pain and somehow managed to phone for an ambulance and crawl to open the door for them. He was taken to Mercy Hospital in Buffalo where they discovered that he had suffered a bleeding stroke in his brain from a ruptured aneurism in the back of his brain. They did a sophisticated procedure on him to stop the bleeding, but then he was put into a medically induced coma for a few days, after which they waited for him to wake up. These kinds of hemorrhagic strokes account for about 15% of all strokes, but have a high mortality rate and are the cause of death in 40% of all strokes also lead to serious disabilities. However, Witakowski survived and had such a miraculous recovery that astonished everyone including the doctors. Amazingly, it was music that woke him out of his coma. He is telling his story now to promote stroke rehabilitation and music therapy.
While he was lying in a coma, many visitors came to visit him bearing music in one form or another. Students of his played violin and guitar music by his bedside. A priest came and sang Polish hymns and friends serenaded him with Polish Christmas carols. An unexpected visit by the all-male a cappella group, the Potsdam Pointercounts, who came because freezing weather kept them from performing at a nearby school proved to be a turning point. A nurse wheeled him to hear their performance and Witakowski stirred and raised his hands as though he was conducting an orchestra. After that his doctors insisted that music should be the main part of his therapy. Every time a member of the medical staff came into his room they turned on to music and turned up the volume on their phones. In fact one of the doctors involved in neuro intensive care was also a music lover and he put his phone to Witakowski’s ear with all kinds of music from Paganini to punk rock.
However, it was Beethoven’s masterpiece 5th Symphony that finally brought Witakowski out of his semi-conscious state. Witakowski describes it as triumphing over darkness and compares it also to Beethoven who was struggling with deafness. However, even though he finally woke up, Witakowski felt himself trapped in a body that no longer worked the way it was supposed to. He had feelings of depression because he thought he would have to retire and spend the rest of his life as a disabled person.
However, one night while listening to Verdi’s “Aida” he was overcome with emotion and made up his mind that no matter what it would take, he would get better. He realized that he was music and was determined to get back to it, so he began his regimen of stroke rehabilitation and whatever he was asked to do he would do more. If he was asked to do 15 exercises he would do 30. His tremendous will to live and determination to get better propelled him along. He was finally discharged from the hospital in mid February 2017, but kept up his stroke rehabilitation at home. As he had missed Christmas that year, he bought a little Christmas tree and put it in his room even though Christmas was over.
After many months he returned to teaching, being left with only a few disabilities. He has a shunt to drain fluid out of his head and has to wear special eye glasses to deal with a double vision problem he has in one eye. His motto to all other stroke survivors is to never ever give up.
Ditmas Park Rehab and Care Center in Brooklyn NY, a 5-star rehab facility has an outstanding reputation for stroke rehabilitation and they also offer music therapy. See our blog from March 6, 2018, on stroke rehabilitation and music therapy.
NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn (formerly named NYU Lutheran Medical Center)
Tom Witakowski’s recovery from a hemorrhagic stroke should be an inspiration and offer hope to all stroke victims. Since he was a musician, music therapy played a major role along with his stroke rehabilitation, but music can also help stroke victims with regaining speech and language skills.
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