Nolen was awakened during a delicate part of the two-hour procedure – an ‘awake’ craniotomy – to play the guitar so doctors could evaluate and protect his manual dexterity while being as aggressive as possible in removing the tumor. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Nolen was awakened during a delicate part of the two-hour procedure – an ‘awake’ craniotomy – to play the guitar so doctors could evaluate and protect his manual dexterity while being as aggressive as possible in removing the tumor. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)

A Hopeful New Year for the Patient Who Played Guitar During ‘Awake’ Brain Tumor Surgery

Sylvester neurosurgical team used Christian Nolen’s guitar-playing skills to test and protect his dexterity while removing as much tumor from his brain as possible

Christian Nolen usually plays guitar on stage, but on Dec. 18, 2023, the professional guitarist played notes from Deftones songs while a neurosurgical team at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine worked to remove a tumor from his brain.

Anesthesia put Nolen to sleep at the beginning of the open craniotomy, but he was awakened during a delicate part of the two-hour procedure – an ‘awake’ craniotomy – to play the guitar so doctors could evaluate and protect his manual dexterity while being as aggressive as possible in removing the tumor. 

Dr. Ricardo Komotar, the Sylvester brain and tumor neurosurgeon leading the team, said Nolen had a tumor called a glioma in the right frontal lobe of his brain, near the area that controls left-handed movement. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Ricardo Komotar, the Sylvester brain and tumor neurosurgeon leading the team, said Nolen had a tumor called a glioma in the right frontal lobe of his brain, near the area that controls left-handed movement. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Our plan going into the surgery was that he would be awake and playing the guitar while we were taking out the tumor. We’d be examining him to be sure we weren’t injuring the part that controls hand movement, and the testing of hand movement would be done by him playing the guitar.” 
Dr. Ricardo Komotar, Brain and Tumor Neurosurgeon, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Komotar said testing a skill like guitar playing during surgery is not an everyday occurrence, but he and the Sylvester neurosurgical teams perform awake surgeries several times a week, a couple of hundred times a year. Sylvester’s dedicated neurosurgical center – highly specialized solely for neurosurgical care – is rare among hospitals, and the neurosurgeons, Komotar said, are just one small part of a team that makes these procedures possible.

“A case like this spotlights the value of multidisciplinary care. You can only do these types of surgeries at a place like Sylvester, where there’s a great neurosurgical team with neuroanesthesiologists, great intensive care specialists, great oncologists – an amazing team of professionals working together,” Komotar said.

The patient is initially put to sleep and a regional anesthesia numbs the scalp for the invasive part of the operation and the patient is placed in the proper position for the neurosurgeon to access the area where the tumor is located. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The patient is initially put to sleep and a regional anesthesia numbs the scalp for the invasive part of the operation and the patient is placed in the proper position for the neurosurgeon to access the area where the tumor is located. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Arman Dagal, chief of Neuroanesthesiology and Perioperative Neurosciences at Sylvester, who provided Nolen’s anesthesiology care during the operation, said disease is a continuing process, so their team strives to provide a continuation of care, not just hospital-based care. The day of surgery is one part of that continuum.

In a case like this, we establish a relationship with the patient in the preoperative area because we would like for them to follow a set of instructions during the surgery. We explain to them what is critical, what we need them to do at certain stages, and what will take place during the surgery.
Dr. Arman Dagal, Chief of Neuroanesthesiology and Perioperative Neurosciences at Sylvester

The patient is initially put to sleep and a regional anesthesia numbs the scalp for the invasive part of the operation, Dagal said, and the patient is placed in the proper position for the neurosurgeon to access the area where the tumor is located. 

“When we’re ready, in the critical portion of the surgery when we need them to communicate with us, we wake the patient up and take out the breathing tube. They slowly get oriented to where they are,” Dagal said, adding that that’s when Nolen was given the guitar and asked to play. He chose Deftones songs for his playlist.

In addition to helping neurosurgeons target a tumor while sparing vital tissues and function, awake brain surgery provides other benefits for patients, Komotar and Dagal said.

Nolen was awakened during a delicate part of the two-hour procedure – an ‘awake’ craniotomy – to play the guitar so doctors could evaluate and protect his manual dexterity while being as aggressive as possible in removing the tumor. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
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“It’s shown to improve outcomes, in terms of lower complication rates. Also, patients stay in the hospital a shorter period of time, and they require less-invasive postoperative monitoring because when they go to the ICU, they’re fully awake and we can communicate with them,” Dagal said. “These are all benefits from having less anesthetic and being awake. There’s less chance of nausea and vomiting and greater early mobilization.”

Nolen continues to undergo treatment – the continuum of care that Dagal referred to – but he has resumed his active lifestyle and is playing guitar again – for fun, having passed his left-handed dexterity tests and ending 2023 on what might be described as a high note. (SG/Newswise)

Nolen was awakened during a delicate part of the two-hour procedure – an ‘awake’ craniotomy – to play the guitar so doctors could evaluate and protect his manual dexterity while being as aggressive as possible in removing the tumor. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)
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