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Musician undergoes brain surgery to save hand

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He plays on after a medical malady threatened his life and his career. The keys to his success -- great care and the soul of a determined musician.

David Allen, musician: “I just sat down one day and started playing. I started playing when I was about three and a half. I play by ear, and I taught myself.”

With no classical training, David Allen has made his living at the piano. For more than 20 years he’s been a fixture in the Chicago music scene – a member of the popular local jam band Mr Blotto and most recently as a dueling piano player.

With quick motion he moves across the keyboard. But take a closer look … that fluid sound that fills the room is generated from just five fingers.

David Allen: “When you’re playing and you know there’s a part your right hand plays and you’ve done it a thousand times before, you’re like ‘Come on! Get in the game!’ Probably around 2010 or so I started to notice some dexterity loss in the right hand, and I thought arthritis, carpal tunnel, getting old. Over the last four or five years it started getting progressively worse.”

After several trips to different doctors, a neurologist ordered a brain scan.

David Allen: “She ordered an MRI of brain, which was the last thing I could possibly think that it was. Then she called and said, ‘Here’s what’s on your brain. It’s noncancerous. I’m like, ‘Ok, I like the noncancerous part.’”

It was a tangled mass of blood vessels.

Dr Julian Bailes, neurosurgeon, NorthShore University HealthSystem: “It’s in a deep part of the brain. They are abnormal blood vessels that are fragile, and they tend to rupture unpredictably.”

Called a vascular malformation – it sat in a critical area.

Dr Bailes: “It was like a double whammy for him because not only was it something that was big and threatened his brain and was even life threatening, but also it threatened his livelihood. It was in an area that controlled his dominant hand.”

Neurosurgeon Dr Julian Bailes was able to reach the lesion through a natural fold inDavid’s brain – sparing the surrounding healthy tissue.

Dr Bailes: “We have to detach all of these vessels. We want to diffuse it like diffusing a bomb and take the thing out.”

David Allen: “My last gig before I went into surgery, all of a sudden I had this panicky dark moment and said, ‘What if I can’t play again?’ When I woke up and the arm didn’t move it was the strangest thing ever.”

Six months after his brain surgery, David’s recovery continues with physical therapy and intense exercise. Slowly, his hand movement is progressing.

David Allen: “We worked really, really hard at doing everything.”

And he’s back on stage … just this week at Slugger’s for a post-Cubs game dueling piano show.

David Allen: “The guy came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Dude, you were playing one-handed! Just so you know you can’t tell.’ I said ‘Great! That’s what I’m going for!’”

David Allen: “My dad said if you’re going to be a one-handed piano player, be the best one-handed piano player there is, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

You can catch David’s shows at Sluggers in Wrigleyville and at America’s Bar in Hoffman Estates.

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