This Teen With A Brain Tumor Was Awake During Surgery, And She Sang Through The Entire Procedure

It’s not uncommon for authors to get stuck with what’s known as writer’s block. And thanks to that affliction, wordsmiths may not only lose their train of thought, but they may also get frustrated and end up in a creative downslide. If you’re a singer who suddenly finds that they can’t hit the notes they once did, however, something more troubling may be at play.

And Kira Iaconetti found herself in such a situation while still young. The teenager had harbored a real interest in music during her formative years and had taken to the stage for the first time at just six. The aspiring performer began to learn more about her chosen art form, too, and picked up some valuable skills along the way. Everything changed for her, however, in 2014.

In that year, you see, Iaconetti started to experience some strange episodes where she would seemingly forget how to sing. As a consequence, then, the teenager visited Seattle Children’s Hospital in a bid to discover what was afflicting her – and she received an answer after an MRI scan.

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Specifically, Iaconetti discovered that she not only had a rare form of epilepsy, but also that a small brain tumor was growing in her right temporal lobe. Naturally, then, doctors looked to remove the growth in an operation that was scheduled for September 2018. And as the surgery progressed, the singer was rather unusually woken up from her anesthesia and asked to perform certain tasks.

There are some people who are fortunate enough to discover their callings while still young. And Iaconetti can certainly count herself among that group, as her passion for music came to the fore when she was just a child. Not only, that, but the talented young woman was pretty much entirely self-taught in her endeavors.

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Iaconetti knew that she had performing chops, too. “I’ve been doing musicals since I was six,” the resident of Lynden, Washington, said in an interview with Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2018. “I think it’s the one thing I’m actually good at.”

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Iaconetti added, “I act and I sing, and that’s just kind of been my ‘brand’ since elementary school.” And the aspiring star continued to showcase her musical abilities into her teens through spells on the stage. In 2014, though, she started to pick up on something quite odd.

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At that time, Iaconetti encountered a bizarre feeling whenever she heard any music; she noticed that her singing was being affected as well. And years after the teenager first experienced her strange symptoms, she tried her best to describe how she had been left in somewhat of a mental daze.

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“It was like a light switch turned off in my brain,” Iaconetti explained to Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Suddenly, I was tone deaf, I couldn’t process the words in time with the music, and I couldn’t sing.” And while these moments would only last for a couple of minutes each, the teenager nevertheless felt drained each time she came to.

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What’s more, although Iaconetti went on to see a doctor about these episodes, things only seemed to get worse. The fatigue that she felt in the aftermath of her mental lapses continued, for one, and she also became anxious about embarrassing herself on stage. The concerned teen therefore chose to return to her physician.

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“Forcing myself to sing after one of these glitches was extremely difficult by this point,” Iaconetti later explained. “I would become incoherent, slurring and stuttering my words. That was [a] good enough reason to go back to the neurologist.” And following the meeting, the teen’s doctor then came to a rather worrying conclusion.

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You see, according to Iaconetti’s neurologist, the young woman wasn’t suffering from normal mental lapses but actually a number of seizures. And while the doctor noted that music appeared to be the cause of these medical events, he couldn’t explain what was provoking them at first.

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So, Iaconetti was taken to the Seattle Children’s Hospital for an MRI scan, which revealed yet further worrying news: the teen also had a small tumor on the right side of her brain. And there was an explanation, too, for why music seemingly set off her epilepsy.

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Neurosurgeon Dr. Jason Hauptman explained further to the Seattle Children’s Hospital website, revealing, “[Iaconetti’s] tumor was discovered because of a very unusual type of epilepsy she had called musicogenic epilepsy. These seizures are triggered by listening to music or singing, which is an unfortunate problem for Kira since she is a performer who likes to sing.”

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And following Iaconetti’s diagnosis, her father, Bob, would go on to speak about the ramifications of the brain tumor. He specifically focused his attention on the position of the mass, highlighting the horrible irony that came with it. “[The doctors] are fairly confident that [the tumor] can be easily removed,” he told Seattle Children’s Hospital.

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“The tricky part is that, of all places in the brain to be located, [the tumor is in Iaconetti’s] right temporal lobe, which in [her] case controls all of her auditory senses,” Bob continued. “So her ability to process sound, to sing, to sing on key – all of that potentially could be compromised.”

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Furthermore, Hauptman divulged that the tumor itself was right next to Iaconetti’s auditory cortex. And as the auditory cortex is where information relating to sound is processed in the brain, it made sense why the teen was suffering episodes around music. It was hoped, though, that an operation on the affected area would finally put things right.

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And Iaconetti seemed to understand just how complex the procedure would be. “In a sort of twisted joke from the universe, the tumor was right inside the area of my brain that controls my hearing and singing ability,” she said in her interview with the hospital. “Messing with it could permanently affect my voice.”

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Yet despite her knowledge that things had the potential to go very wrong, Iaconetti had confidence in her neurosurgeon. “Because Dr. Hauptman knew how important it is to me to continue singing and acting, he wanted to be very careful when removing the tumor,” she said. “He didn’t want to interfere with my ability to sing.”

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Ahead of the operation, meanwhile, Hauptman consulted with a few of his co-workers in a bid to avoid any complications that may compromise Iaconetti’s singing ability. Yet while the procedure itself may have been tricky, the medical professional had had plenty of experience. Indeed, prior to joining Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2017, Hauptman had built up an impressive résumé.

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And Hauptman outlined his considerable career on the hospital website. “After high school, I attended Muhlenberg College – a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania where I received a BA in psychology and a BS in biology,” he began. “From there, I returned to New Jersey for medical school.”

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Following the spell back in his native state, however, Hauptman relocated yet again in order to improve his knowledge of what would become his speciality. “Then I moved across the country to Los Angeles where I trained in neurosurgery at UCLA under Dr. Neil Martin,” he continued.

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“During my residency, I earned a PhD in neuroscience,” Hauptman went on. “[I studied] the ways nerve cells communicate and potentially contribute to epilepsy in diseases like cortical dysplasia and tuberous sclerosis. After residency, I went on to complete a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.”

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Hauptman then earned a permanent position at the health care company Kaiser Permanente, where he plied his trade as a skilled neurosurgeon in Los Angeles, California. Two years into that job, though, the doctor attracted the attention of the Seattle Children’s Hospital, and he subsequently received a job offer that he didn’t refuse.

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Hauptman is conscious about the impact of his work, too. “Being able to help parents and children in a time of need is our greatest reward and our greatest responsibility,” he wrote on the Seattle Children’s Hospital website. “I try my best to treat each family as if they were my own family and take care of every child as if they were my own.”

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And the neurosurgeon certainly appeared to do his due diligence ahead of Iaconetti’s brain surgery. In particular, he mapped out a plan that would hopefully avoid any damage to the teen’s musical ability – even if the scheme did entail some rather unusual practices.

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You see, unlike a standard operation, Hauptman planned to wake Iaconetti up from her anesthesia during the surgery. The singer would then be asked to perform musical exercises while her doctors kept watch and observed her behavior. By doing that, the medics could get an idea of what to avoid when removing the tumor.

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And Hauptman defended his choice to perform what is known as an awake craniotomy, saying, “Our focus was not only on taking care of the tumor, but [also] making [Iaconetti’s] life better. We wanted to preserve the things she cares about, like her passion for pursuing a career in musical theater.”

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Even so, an operation of this kind hadn’t been performed at the hospital before, leading Hauptman to gather together a team of specialists. Ahead of the big day, he was joined by neuropsychologists Dr. Molly Warner and Dr. Hillary Shurtleff; a musical therapist named David Knott came on board, too.

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Together, the experts drew up a strategy with Iaconetti a few days before the surgery, noting the exercises she needed to do. Alongside that, the teen was also expected to sing a song during the operation, with Knott choosing something from Iaconetti’s personal playlist. Then after the preparation was complete, the medical professionals and Knott were finally ready to go.

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And Shurtleff would later remark upon the unusual procedure. “We’ve never had a patient sing in the operating room before, and Kira is such a talented musician,” she told the hospital website. “Her voice is so beautiful, and her willingness to do something new helped make the whole process interactive, collaborative and exciting.”

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Then, when the time eventually came, Iaconetti was put under in the operating room, with Knott, Hauptman and Shurtleff beside her as the surgery got underway. Firstly, a small part of the teenager’s skull was opened up, exposing the part of the brain that hosted the tumor. Then came perhaps the most crucial part.

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Iaconetti was subsequently stirred from the anesthetic, after which Hauptman paid her an unusual compliment. “Kira, your brain is beautiful!” he told the aspiring performer. “Can you see it?” she responded. “I’m looking right at it,” the neurosurgeon assured her, as he prepared for the next stage.

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From there, Iaconetti started to go through the musical exercises with Shurtleff while Hauptman watched on. And during that period, the singer was encouraged to perform the song that had been chosen before the operation: Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” which even contained a rather ironic lyric.

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So, Iaconetti began to sing the track while Hauptman carefully removed the tumor. And, incredibly, she was able to hit all the right notes during the rendition. When the teen began a second attempt, moreover, the doctors even started to sing themselves – and there were a few grins, too, at the words “I can’t control my brain.”

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Then, after Hauptman had removed the entire tumor, Iaconetti was put back under for the rest of the procedure. And following a short recovery period, the singer was sat up in her hospital bed with a guitar in hand, showing very few signs that she’d had brain surgery just two days before.

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Knott couldn’t help but praise Iaconetti’s progress during healing, either. “After taking some time to warm up, she nailed the pitches, and her tone sounded great,” he told the Seattle Children’s Hospital website. “She was projecting her voice. It was very encouraging to see her sing and communicate musically in such a strong way so soon after brain surgery.”

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Hauptman, meanwhile, has since reflected on the awake craniotomy. “At Seattle Children’s, we deal with the incredible every day,” he admitted. “Kira is a remarkable young lady who had a terrible problem. We came together and developed a very novel way to approach her problem that we’re hoping will have a positive impact for the rest of her life.”

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And, fortunately, the tumor itself was benign, with the aspiring musician subsequently given a clean bill of health at the hospital. In Hauptman’s opinion, too, Iaconetti shouldn’t require any additional care – not least because the risk of her experiencing similar problems is low.

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In all, then, the neurosurgeon and his team gave Iaconetti a new lease of life. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the teenager wants to continue pursuing her lifelong dream. She said in her interview with the Seattle Children’s Hospital website, “My biggest fear before the surgery was that the seizures would get in the way of performing. Now, I want to get back to the stage [and] to performing as soon as I can.”

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