A&O READING on Neuroplasticity and Martha Curtis


ROSA SALTER, The Morning Call    Sept 22, 2000    https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-2000-09-22-3315215-story.html

It’s tempting to want to reduce the story of Martha Curtis to a twist on the punch line of a very old joke.

‘Doctor, after the operation, will I be able to play the violin?’ asks the anxious patient. ‘Why, of course,’ says the doctor. ‘That’s wonderful!’ the patient replies. ‘I never could before!’

The difference of course, is that Curtis could play the violin, so well that she envisioned a satisfying musical career, before the three surgeries that removed part of her brain to control epilepsy-induced seizures.

And her fear of never playing again was all too real.

‘The actual surgery was not experimental at all. They like doing right temporal lobes. They take them out all the time. The problem that everyone was having was that they’d never done a musician before,’ explains the 43-year-old classical violinist from Pittsburgh, who will perform at Northampton Community College Tuesday.

‘You see, nobody knows where music lies in the brain. They’ve never been able to pinpoint it,” she continues. ‘That was the big fear that I was going to lose what drove me forward, that sustaining thing in my life.’

But the way Curtis saw it, she had no choice but to undergo the operations. And she had faced worse fear before.

Indeed, every time she went onstage, Curtis was afraid of having a seizure. And each time she had one — right before her surgeries they were happening five times a month — they would be preceded by a feeling of intense, impending doom that would grow to absolute terror.

Medical experts call such feelings an aura, and they are a common feature among those with epilepsy.

‘It was a feeling that I was going to be killed. Physically killed,” says Curtis. ‘To me, at that point, the seizures were in the way of the music.’

An honors graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Curtis says she barely recalls a time when she didn’t have to fight through her medical condition to nurture her passion for the violin.

Her first seizure, a grand mal, occurred when she was 3. Her mother found her in her bedroom in full-body convulsions.

By the age of 4, however, she was reveling in music lessons. By 13, she had been awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where she graduated second in her class. She received a full-tuition scholarship to Eastman.

But, Curtis says, she needed to use powerful medications, chiefly phenobarbital, to control the seizures, and the drugs frequently failed her. She even trained other musicians to compensate if she seized onstage.

When she thought she was about to have a seizure, she would alert a fellow player, who would remove her violin and place it on the floor. When Curtis was ready to resume, her colleague would point her to the spot in the music.

Curtis says her seizures generally did not cause her to lose consciousness. Still, the prospect of experiencing what amounted to a storm of uncontrolled electrical activity in her brain in the middle of Brahms or Beethoven was unnerving.

‘When I was onstage . . . and having a seizure, the first thing that would happen was my left hand went dystonic, which means you can’t finger, but my right arm would keep moving. So I would keep playing,” she says. ‘I would play garbage, but I had no idea I was doing it.’

Her condition forced her to scale back her professional ambitions. She quickly learned ‘nobody would pay me a full-time salary to have me have a seizure onstage,” she says with a laugh. Large orchestras were definitely out, but Curtis did play successfully for several years in regional orchestras in Ohio.

Then, in the early 1990s, her condition worsened. While playing music from ‘My Fair Lady’ during a concert, she had a seizure that caused her to fall unconscious, backstage, for at least a half-hour, and temporarily paralyzed her left side.

She recalls sitting in the audience in tears for the second half of the performance.

The experience led her to undergo surgery at the the Cleveland Clinic in January, 1991. At that time, the surgery, though risky, was considered almost routine in some hospitals, having been performed for about 20 years.

The surgery removes abnormal or scarred tissue in the brain that triggers seizures. The brain rewires itself without loss of crucial functions.

Curtis says her doctors were quite conservative in the amount of tissue they removed because they were concerned about the impact on her musical abilities.

But the surgery was unsuccessful, and Curtis suffered a seizure almost immediately after the operation. She also suffered bleeding in her brain. One nurse complimented her on ‘how hard I fought,” she recalls.

Less than a year later, Curtis returned for more surgery, but that also failed to eliminate her seizures. Curtis had to convince her physicians to let one of the world’s top surgeons try again, after testing showed her seizures were unusual.

‘The only thing that was misfiring was the amygdala,” Curtis says, adding that her surgeons have told her that most seizures that involve that small section of the brain start in a larger area that can’t be removed. But because of a technique known as brain mapping, she says, her surgeon was able to precisely limit the surgery’s range.

Today, after more than five years, Curtis remains seizure-free, ‘without even a premonition of a seizure,’ she says.

Her career, which she had relegated to part-time status, resumed its importance. Curtis returned to her violin teacher, Charles Castleman, and found she had better concentration and memory. Her technique improved.

She soloed in front of an orchestra for the first time in 1997, and has found herself in demand as a guest artist. She performs for fund-raisers for hospitals and medical charities, and often plays for children.

During appearances, Curtis often speaks about her condition, her surgeries and the perspective they have brought her.

Audiences and the media have been fascinated. She has been profiled on CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ and NBC’s ‘The Today Show.’

Curtis says her surgeries had an effect that went beyond controlling her seizures. She feels as if her whole personality, and how it impacts her music, has been transformed.

Call it the effect of normalcy.

‘I’ve always been an intensely driven human being, and people all my life have wanted me to learn how to relax. What they didn’t know was I didn’t have that luxury. When I relaxed, I seized,” she says.

Curtis says she couldn’t listen to soothing music some Mozart, for example without feeling a seizure coming on. She preferred to play ‘hard-hitting’ music, such as the Brahms Sonata in D minor she expects to perform at NCC, accompanied by Richard Duncan of New York City. ‘Strong music, very strong,’ she says, has ‘actually always been what I’ve done most easily.’

But no more. ‘I can relax now, so there is something that can come to the music. It’s a subtle thing. It’s not so kinesthetic . . . . It’s not as analytical. … It can be much more lyrical, a singing quality, because I can experience music as a wash of sound. I couldn’t afford that before.’

Further adding a relaxed quality to her life is her and her husband’s, 10-month-old adoptive daughter, Eliana Anika. Curtis has been married to cellist and computer software engineer Walter Jackson since 1985.

Curtis says she never thought she would become a mother because of her need to take epilepsy drugs, the demands of her and her husband’s careers and her ‘high-pitched’ emotional life.

‘Life was ‘way too stormy to for me to want to subject a child to that,’ she says. ‘I never thought I would have the luxury of just hanging out with a baby, and the luxury to watch a human being unfold in front of my eyes is just phenomenal.

‘But I’ve fought hard for that. My default screen, because I’ve practiced it so much, is to battle. My natural response to the universe is to fight like mad. It was constant struggle.’

She laughs as she recalls that she used to practice the violin in her hospital bed after surgery ‘just to let the doctors know I was serious.’

‘To not be fighting one’s brain all the time is wonderful. It takes such energy,” Curtis concludes. ‘I had no idea life could be this easy, this good, until I got rid of all that interference.’