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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Talented musician doesn’t miss a beat in brain injury recovery

January 26, 2021

The son of a music teacher, music isn’t just a hobby for 23-year-old John Anderson. It’s a way of life.

“Mom was obviously a big influence on the music, and when I was 7 my dad bought us a mini Squier electric guitar,” John said. “It just kind of went from there.”

He’s taught himself to play half a dozen instruments.

“Ukulele, guitar and harmonica are what I know officially,” John said. “But, I also play piano and a few other stringed instruments.”

His favorite is no secret.

“I was really hoping he’d pick up piano, because that’s what I teach, but his dad bought him the guitar and it was just love from there,” said Julie Baker, John’s mom.

In therapy at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals Omaha Campus, John’s performances now look a little different. In November 2020, John was hit by a car while stopped on the side of Interstate 29 in Council Bluffs. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, and is unable to move the right side of his body.

“I had an officer come to my door, telling me my son was in an accident and the officer can’t really tell me if he’s going to make it or not,” Julie said. “I’m told all he knows is it is very serious and it’s a head injury. It was honestly the worst moment of my life.”

John’s family didn’t know if he would ever pick up an instrument again.

“We didn’t know if he was going to wake up, we didn’t know if he’d be able to talk, we didn’t know if he even understood us, so to see him today, two months later is just incredible,” Julie said.

After spending time at Nebraska Medicine, John came to Madonna, where his care team quickly realized what a huge role music plays in his life.

“I think sometimes people are so focused on getting stronger and getting back to life, they forget what it is in their life that makes them who they are, and for John, that’s music,” said Kayle Wiseman, a recreation therapist.

In occupational therapy, John plays the piano with one hand.

“John has made great progress since we started seeing him,” said Jena Roeber, an occupational therapist. “He’s dressing independently. We’ve gone to the chapel to play music and he’s played some in his room as well during our sessions!”

In recreation therapy, Wiseman helped him find new, adaptive ways to strum ukulele strings.

“We always tell people, especially after an injury or an accident, you know this might not go exactly the way you think it’s going to or it used to, but the important thing is that you just start,” Wiseman said. “You just do it again. So to see him so happy and so fulfilled after he tried it, I think it was really fulfilling for everyone in the room. It’s really obvious how much music fulfills his life.”

Even when he takes a break from his instruments, a melody still finds its way into therapy with the help of YouTube.

“We’ve played music at the FES bike or when doing some electrical stimulation to that right arm,” Roeber said.

Just like his musical ability, John’s positive attitude is self-taught.

“Who I am, what I’ve been through between this car crash and several other things, it has a definite purpose,” John said. “I’m me, so come listen to it.”

In between physical therapy sessions, Julie hopes she and John can use music as a therapy tool in another way.

“That might be therapy for both of us, writing about our experience, because when you go through something like this, it changes your life and that’s what great songs are written about,” Julie said.

When he leaves Madonna, John will have an adaptive recording studio set up at home so his music career won’t miss a beat.

“I’m going to at least keep singing,” John said. “It’s just what I do. If I don’t have music, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

Wiseman said she hopes John will come back to Madonna someday and perform for patients and staff. For now, he will focus on continuing to do outpatient physical therapy through Madonna’s Rehabilitation Day Program.

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