The strains of George Gershwin’s Summertime float down the busy corridors of King’s College Hospital in London as violinist Dagmar Turner delivers a near-perfect performance.
For a follow-up medical review, it’s rather unorthodox. But consultant neurosurgeon Professor Keyoumars Ashkan listens with rapt attention and delight.
The last time he heard Dagmar play this aria was four weeks ago. Both agree it wasn’t a patch on today’s encore. Scratchy, halting and a little out of tune, it was far from virtuoso.
‘I hit quite a few bum notes,’ says 53-year-old Dagmar laughingly, putting down her bow with a flourish. ‘It wasn’t my best performance, but perhaps my most famous.’
Dagmar Turner had a 8cm by 4cm brain tumour removed in January and was woken up during the procedure to play her violin so doctors could ensure they weren’t destroying her talent
You can say that again. Who hasn’t seen the video of Dagmar bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘musical theatre’?
Woken up during delicate surgery to remove an aggressive tumour from her right frontal lobe, she played for three hours while Professor Ashkan, 52, literally fiddled with her brain.
Given that her head was clamped into place and part of her skull removed while the surgeon used an electrical probe on her grey matter, who could blame Dagmar for the occasional duff note?
Indeed, since footage emerged just over a week ago of the amateur musician from the Isle of Wight segueing from Gershwin to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5 — via scales, random melodies and Julio Iglesias’s Besame Mucho — Dagmar has become an overnight sensation.
Her recovery has been so rapid, she is already rehearsing for a sellout concert in two weeks’ time with the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra.
Recalling the moment she was roused in mid-surgery, she says: ‘I said, “No, no, leave me alone. Let me sleep”. It was so noisy and bright in the theatre. I didn’t like it but they kept saying, “Play, Dagmar, play”, so I closed my eyes and tried to remember all the melodies I’d learned as a child.’
The violinist and the surgeon who operated on her, Professor Keyoumars Ashkan, have now reunited with Dagmar playing music as part of her follow up appointment
At one point in the video, one of the medical team cries, ‘Amazing!’ and urges her to continue.
‘I wasn’t frightened,’ she says, ‘but it was very uncomfortable being stuck in one position for hours, trying not to poke Professor Ashkan in the eye with my bow.’
She was playing to help the surgeon identify the parts of her brain that control the finest movements of her fingers, so he could be careful not to damage them. And although it was stressful playing non-stop in a supine position, unable to move her head a millimetre but fully conscious, Dagmar felt no pain at all.
She only knew Professor Ashkan was touching a vital part of her brain when her playing faltered, stopped or they all heard a wrong note.
‘I can’t say it was enjoyable but it was fascinating,’ she says.
Dagmar, pictured with her husband Mat, said she ‘hit quite a few bum notes’ while playing the violin during the surgery but wasn’t ‘frightened’ by being awake on the operating table
Professor Ashkan explains: ‘Although a patient can feel pain in other parts of the body through messages to the brain, the brain has no sense of itself because there are no nerve-endings. So when I do this kind of surgery the patient feels nothing.’
This is the first time Dagmar and the professor — head of the King’s Brain Tumour Service — have met since the six-hour procedure to remove her 8cm by 4cm tumour on January 31.
Two of his 12-strong team that day, consultant anaesthetist Holly Jones, 46, and neurosurgical registrar Mathew Gallagher, 35, have also popped in to enjoy Dagmar’s repeat performance.
‘I’ve woken up a tailor during an operation to check he could still sew. But this was our first violinist,’ says Holly, thrilled at seeing Dagmar as fit as her fiddle.
As for Dagmar, she is remarkably matter-of-fact about her ordeal and looks unscathed, her long blonde hair masking the scars and staples where the skin over her skull was restitched after surgery.
‘I am so grateful to the team because, for me, this operation wasn’t just about surviving but quality of life,’ she says. ‘I may not be a concert violinist but music means everything to me.’
Two of Professor Ashkan’s 12-strong team from the surgery, consultant anaesthetist Holly Jones, 46, and neurosurgical registrar Mathew Gallagher, 35, also popped in to enjoy Dagmar’s repeat performance in the follow up appointment (all pictured together)
Dagmar (pictured playing her violin after brain surgery) first suffered a seizure while practising a Mendelssohn overture during a rehearsal one evening in 2013
Iranian-born Professor Ashkan — who also has a music degree and is an accomplished pianist — insists he was just doing his job.
‘The technical aspect of the operation is fascinating but what really matters for me is not how I did it but why,’ says the professor, who has worked in neurosurgery for a quarter of a century since graduating from Cardiff University School of Medicine.
‘The ability to play the violin was critical to Dagmar, and it is a doctor’s role to listen when a patient tells you what they need, rather than say, “No, no, no, we can’t do that”.
‘The stakes were a bit higher with this operation. But I delivered, so I am happy and she doesn’t need to thank me.’
Born in Germany, Dagmar moved to the UK in 1997 as managing director of a mail-order fashion company and met husband Mat, 47, an engineer, in Nottingham, where he lived next door. They were married in 2003 and their son Felix was born four years later.
The daughter of an amateur pianist, Dagmar had played violin from the age of ten. Music was central to her life, and in 2010 she joined the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra.
It was during a rehearsal one evening in 2013 that she suffered a seizure while practising a Mendelssohn overture.
‘Luckily, we had quite a few retired doctors playing with us and I came round to find one of them shining a light in my eyes,’ she says.
Dagmar (pictured with her husband) put on a brave face, hiding the effects of the radiotherapy — which caused crushing fatigue — from her son Felix and continuing to play the violin
Referred for an MRI scan in Southampton, Dagmar says it felt like ‘a punch to the stomach’ to be told she had a large slow-growing tumour. Because of its size and location, surgery was considered too risky.
Instead, Dagmar had a six-week course of intensive radiotherapy to shrink the tumour, which, she says, gave her no further trouble for the next seven years.
‘Our son was only seven years old when I was diagnosed and we decided not to tell him because we felt he was too young. We didn’t want him to worry,’ says Dagmar.
‘It’s a huge shock to be told you have an uninvited guest in your brain. But I’ve always been a very resilient person, so I decided to embrace the tumour and make it my friend.
‘I thought, “OK, I didn’t want you to move in, but now you’re here I am going to live with you as best I can.”
She put on a brave face, hiding the effects of the radiotherapy — which caused crushing fatigue — from her son and continuing to play the violin.
Every three months, then every six months, she had an MRI scan to monitor the tumour, which did not change until last November, when it showed signs of aggressive growth.
Dagmar was told surgery was now the only option to prevent the life-threatening tumour gradually robbing her of her faculties.