For Andrew Schulman, music is life – literally. Not only did it help save his life, he now uses it as a tool to save the lives of others.
Schulman is a New York-based professional concert-level 8 string guitarist. He has played Carnegie Hall and the Whitehouse.
He is also a Medical Musician. A member of the medical team at New York University's Langone Medical Centre and Massachusetts' Berkshire Medical Centre’s intensive care units - he plays his guitar to patients and families at the bedside.
Schulman and his doctors believe music helped him turn the corner when he himself was at a critical point in a coma. He now plays music to help others in similar situations.
He has now written a book about his experiences called Waking the Spirit: A Musician's Journey Healing Body, Mind, And Soul.
In 2009 Schulman went into anaphylactic shock after a major pancreas surgery.
He was clinically dead, but was able to be revived and then put into a coma to buy him time and preserve brain function.
“I was massively, massively sick.”
Medical teams put him into an induced coma to buy him time and to preserve brain function.
In the first three days of Schulman’s coma, no one thought he was going to live.
In the third day of his coma, Schulman’s wife reached into her bag to call his mother when she noticed his iPod.
Schulman says she told his doctor that neither her voice nor his medicine were working… ‘he loves music more than anything, I have his iPod, can we play music for him?’
The doctor could easily have said no, as Schulman says he could’ve been liable for malpractice if things went wrong – but he gave the green light to play 30 minutes of music.
No one knew what to play so they played the first track that was on there – which happened to be Bach.
Schulman says the music stabilised him and started the process of what saved his life.
He says he remembers the incident thanks to a ‘coma dream’.
“It’s a dream like state and it’s induced because you’re very, very heavily sedated.”
After his recovery, Schulman went on to join the team that had saved him as a medical musician in their department, using his music as a healing power.
“That day I returned six months later, in the first 10 minutes of going back into the unit with my guitar and its case on my back… and the nurses recognised me, it was quite a reunion.”
Schulman says he was accepted almost immediately because he was someone whose life they had saved.
In about 80 percent of the patients he plays for, the person is ‘out’ or unresponsive.
“Unless there is something wrong with the hearing apparatus, everybody hears everything no matter what state they’re in.”
It’s been proven that music is able to stimulate the brain more than any other stimulus, Schulman says, but not just any music.
He says it has to be music that resonates for that person, as music can easily agitate people if they don’t like it.
“If the music is right for that person and it’s really well done it activates all over the brain.”
It’s the instrumental arrangements of songs that Schulman says seem to have the most effect.
“A wonderful piece by Schubert… or Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.”
Schulman says the brain is a good pharmacy and produces chemicals to help the body.
“What I’m trying to do is get them to, either inside their head sing that tune or have imagery that’s going on in their head so they can leave this very scientific, technical, scary environment, which it often is.”