Music gives new life to brain injured

Dana King’s life was devastated by a serious brain injury. He was plagued by memory problems, trouble speaking and terrible anxiety around people.

Peter Lawryniuk danced and sang an Elvis tune during the music program at the Brain Injury Association office in Kitchener

Peter Lawryniuk danced and sang an Elvis tune during the music program at the Brain Injury Association office in Kitchener

KITCHENER, Ont. — Dana King’s life was devastated by a serious brain injury. He was plagued by memory problems, trouble speaking and terrible anxiety around people.

Those troubles faded when he picked up his guitar again.

“As far as I’m concerned, the guitar actually brought me back to life,” King said.

Joining other brain injury survivors in music through a program run by the Brain Injury Association of Waterloo-Wellington really helped him emerge from his disability.

When the group gets together weekly to sing and play instruments at the association’s Kitchener centre, their brain injuries don’t matter.

“People are singing off-key, but look at them,” King said. “They’re smiling. They’re laughing. They’re having a lot of fun.”

Surrounded by people facing similar challenges, both physical and mental from a brain injury, they feel accepted.

“They’re not what they used to be, but here they can be whatever they want to be,” said Bruce Mutton, program facilitator and a brain injury survivor himself.

As many as 50 people come out for the music sessions, some play instruments and sing while others just listen. Several were musical before their injury, and others have just discovered their voice.

For all, music is a joy.

“They’re confident and they function better,” Mutton said. The singalong is “a dose of motivation to go out because their challenges are huge.”

He’s seen big changes in people after joining the program, blossoming from being withdrawn to singing a signature solo.

“All of a sudden they’ve got their own song. It’s amazing,” said Patti Lehman, the association’s executive director. “This has done wonders for the confidence of these guys.”

Members even write their own songs and the group’s band, the Opportunities, has recorded a CD and plays regularly in the community.

The band will be among the musical acts at a fundraiser they’re holding Nov. 6 for the music program and others offered by the association, a non-profit group that provides social activities and resources for people with an acquired brain injury and their families. “I love it. I don’t know what I’d do without my music,” said King, who’s 58. “It opened up my life just so much.”

King suffered his brain injury about 14 years ago, when he was an Ontario Provincial Police officer and his cruiser was hit by a fleeing vehicle during a high-speed chase.

When he reluctantly came to the Brain Injury Association, Mutton and another man encouraged him to play his guitar. At first, he hid in a corner.

“Little by little, they would bring me into the group,” King said. “And it got easier, and then it got a lot easier.”

Now he’s front and centre, his guitar and voice reaching every corner of the room.

Kathleen Vanderlinden loved singing in her church choir, but thought that pleasure was lost to her after suffering a stroke about seven years ago that left her unable to talk, walk or move much.

“I didn’t want to give it up, but I thought I had to,” said Vanderlinden, who had two young boys at the time of her stroke and taught special needs children.

While the Waterloo woman gradually regained many of her physical abilities with much determination, her voice was barely a whisper. When she first joined the music program, her shyness stifled her voice more.

But the group encouraged her to keep singing. And now it’s a part of her life again. She’s back in the church choir and even performing solos, something she never did before her stroke.

Not only did the friends she made at the association give her the boost to sing, but they also pushed her to try just about everything, even rock climbing. Vanderlinden soon learned not to think she couldn’t do something without trying first.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said the 46-year-old. “They’re all fantastic.”