'Music healed my memory'

Pics: Victor de Jesus/UNP

Mary Scott doesn’t remember calling her daughter-in-law at four in the morning for a chat, or putting her sister’s glasses in the bin because she didn’t recognise them as hers. Sadly, that’s the situation the retired nurse faced after an unexpected infection following surgery to remove a brain tumour caused chaos with her memory and left her disorientated.

“Nobody told me that there was a risk of losing my physical and mental capabilities after the operation,” Mary (78) says. “By the time it became an issue I had really lost my marbles, so it was a shock to be told after two weeks in hospital that I wasn’t going home, but to a rehab unit.”

Problems started for Mary in July 2013 after failing two routine eye tests. This prompted a scan that revealed a tumour the size of a small orange behind her left eye. “I never had any pain, sickness or dizziness, though the doctors told me the lump must have been growing for at least ten years. The whole thing was incredible.” Thankfully, upon removal the lump proved benign – welcome news considering that Mary’s husband David had recently been diagnosed as terminally ill himself.

“David was emphatic that I should have the surgery, despite his problems,” Mary remembers. “So I found myself in that rehab unit with a heavy heart, desperate to get home to him as soon as possible.”

Though she had made a good physical recovery, Mary had lost all cognitive powers and could no longer perform simple tasks like telling the time, reading, or using day-to-day items such as the radio. She remembers visits from David, but has few other recollections.

“I broke something in the bathroom and took it upon myself to redesign and fix it,” she says. “We laugh about it now but at the time I was deadly serious. That’s partly why I refused to go to music sessions offered at the rehab unit to begin with; apparently I was too busy. But then Alan – my music therapist – suggested that instead of a group meeting we could try playing the piano together. That must have appealed to some sensibility in me because I agreed – and it turned out to be my salvation.”

Over the next four weeks, the change that music made to Mary was miraculous. “That first time at the piano, we were just tinkering about, but Alan was asking me all sorts of questions and I found myself suddenly able to answer them – how I had music lessons as a girl, where I practised when I went to boarding school and other family-related topics that had temporarily eluded me.

“When I realised the effect the music was having, I agreed to attend a group session. I was embarrassed at first because I couldn’t keep time, but then I realised others were much worse off, having suffered strokes and so on. We were all in the same boat, so I began to take pleasure from playing.”

As the weeks passed, Mary discovered that she could apply herself to an increasing number of tasks. “It was like my brain was slowly waking up,” she smiles. “David brought some organ music from home and we’d even have a few sing-songs together at the piano. If ever I got agitated in my room, then I would listen to the radio. And then everything started to click; the roman numerals on my watch made sense again, I could make my own bed and read books, all because of the music.”

‘That first time at the piano, we were just tinkering about, but Alan was asking me all sorts of questions and I found myself suddenly able to answer them’

Towards the end of Mary’s time in the unit, one nurse returned from holiday and was astonished by the change. “She hugged me, saying: ‘We knew you were in there somewhere.’”

And so Mary returned home at the end of September, fully recovered and able to care for David. He sadly passed away the following summer. “I’m so grateful that I recovered in time to help,” Mary says. “My nursing skills came in useful again.

“The music therapy was central to my recovery and without it, I’m certain it would have taken much longer. They need to keep it on in the hospitals, as so many people benefit from it.

“And music didn’t just help me get better – it’s my comfort blanket now that David’s gone. It’s been the biggest help, right from the day of my operation to now. I still play hymns on my organ – What A Friend We Have in Jesus in particular. That’s
my favourite and we played it at David’s funeral.

“I know he was proud of me for overcoming such adversity and I made some good friends at music therapy, too. We used to joke that I’d be top of the Pensioner Pops one day but for now, I’m grateful for the support that music brings.”

  • Nordoff Robbins delivers music therapy to UK patients with dementia, brain injuries and mental health problems. For more information call 0207 428 0061 or visit www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk  

Singing for the brain

The Alzheimer’s Society provides a service called Singing for the Brain, which may aid memory loss and other Alzheimer’s symptoms. Music has been known to hold the key to memories that may otherwise remain locked away, and singing allows people with dementia and carers to express themselves, socialise and relax. No musical background is required to take part. Contact your local Alzheimer’s Society office for details of your nearest group: 0300 222 1122, www.alzheimers.org.uk

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