Playing Violin In Surgery


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The violin is practically another appendage for Roger Frisch. He’s a musician in the truest sense of the word; if he’s not performing every day there is no satisfaction.

It’s hard to catch the man in a free moment–when he does answer the phone it’s between rehearsals with 10 minutes to spare. Later in the same evening, he’ll be performing for an audience numbering in the thousands.

As the Associate Concert Master for the Minnesota Orchestra, Frisch keeps a tight schedule. He’s been playing with them for over 40 years now, and additionally organizes his own orchestra. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find him taking a break between these gigs. Time away is spent playing classical concertos throughout the world.

It’s frenetic to some, an impossible ambition to others, but for Frisch playing the violin is simply the single greatest joy life has to offer.

The sheer exuberance doesn’t come without a price, however. Five years ago it was almost taken away from him forever.

One day Frisch woke up and realized there wasn’t something quite right. It was his right arm. Whenever the concert violinist performed certain physical maneuvers with it, a shake would rattle its way along his limb, seizing all motion.

One of those maneuvers happened to be the slow, deliberate act of bowing a violin.

The shakes worsened, rendering the musician incapable of doing the one thing he loved above all else. So he set out to hear expert medical opinions on the matter.

“When I was first informed after two years of looking for an answer,” Frisch tells BTR, “most of the medical community told me something similar to what they’d tell a major league pitcher. They told me my arm was simply worn out, like a pitcher who has pitched too many games. I was not happy with that answer.”

So he kept searching. His fruitless yearnings brought him an hour from home to the doorstep of the Mayo Clinic. Located in Rochester, Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic is the largest integrated nonprofit medical group practice in the world. It’s the place ailing dreamers go to have their hopes realized in both incredible and unusual ways.

Specialists diagnosed the violinist with essential tremors (ET)–a neurological condition Frisch had never even heard of before. To his dismay, he learned that the shakes would only worsen over time unless crucial action was taken, and fast.

The first measure was for Frisch to begin a daily regiment of medications to help combat the symptoms of the ETs. Instead of relief, however, Frisch found himself drained of any potential creative spirit he had remaining.

“It turned me into a zombie,” he says with a sigh. “And for those of us who perform in front of 2,000 people three to four times a week, it’s not a good idea to be in that sort of state.”

A return to the Mayo Clinic yielded one more option: an experimental brain surgery, known as Deep Brain Stimulation. During the procedure, surgeons drill a hole into the patient’s skull and use wires to detect the location of potential tumors.

“I thought ‘that will never happen to me, it’s certainly not an option,’” Frisch recollects.

But after two years of no cure, and a career dwindling before his very eyes, the Concert Master decided the procedure was maybe the last hope remaining. So after countless weeks spent briefing with Mayo specialists, and after watching hours-worth of Deep Brain Stimulation surgery footage, Frisch entered the operating room.

There was one catch, however. Due to the incredibly small size of the tumor, Frisch had to play violin during the surgery so that surgeons could identify its precise location.

In true Mayo Clinic experimental fashion, a special bow was pioneered by a team of engineers that would allow vibrations from the instrument to be translated to a nearby computer. When the vibrations increased, so too would the chances of locating the source of the tremors.

To Frisch, all of the technology proved to be a source of entertainment rather than dread.

“I’m somewhat of a technology geek,” he says, laughing.

“They had to wheel in countless pieces of machinery, computers, and monitors, and I was fascinated by the whole thing. I had to be conscious, un-sedated and alert the whole time, too.”

When he wasn’t nonchalantly talking up the specialists in the OR, Frisch was playing his specially-tailored violin. This time the audience wasn’t a theater of thousands, but rather 30 medical experts frantically taking notes. The stakes weren’t the happiness of concert-goers, but the very passion itself which keeps the musician going.

The surgery took six hours, and when it was finished Frisch drew a long, steady bow across his instrument. It was a feat he hadn’t experienced in over two years.

The entire operating room erupted in applause.

Five years later and Frisch is back to being busier than ever. The tremor itself has gotten worse, but with the simple push of a button the former career-threatening shakes disappear completely. An electronic stimulator installed in the right side of his chest allows Frisch to nullify the ETs utilizing a remote controlled device.

When asked about his technique and how it has progressed in the time since, he’s proud to admit that it’s even better than it was before.

“I even give some of my colleagues a hard time, because now I can draw slower and steadier than I ever could,” he says with a laugh. “Though I guess technically you could call it cheating, since I’m part bionic now.”