Musical Prodigy Sings During Brain Surgery

Chris Jasurek
By Chris Jasurek
November 18, 2018US News

From the time she was 6 years old, Kira Iaconetti knew that she was born to be in musical theater.

I think it’s one thing I’m actually good at. I act and I sing, and that’s just been my, kind of like “brand,” since elementary school.”

The 19-year-old from Lynden, Washington, had all the natural gifts to pursue her passion. Throughout her public school years, she appeared was on stage whenever she could.

She had no intention of stopping—Kira planned to make musical theater her career. Look out, Broadway—Kira is coming!

Kira was a star onstage from the age of six.
Kira was a star onstage from the age of 6. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

A lump of flesh the size of a marble nearly killed her dreams.

At around the age of 15, Kira noticed that sometimes, for a minute or two, she would lose her talent for singing.

“Whatever it is it feels like a light switch just switches in my brain suddenly I’m tone-deaf. I can’t sing, I can’t process the words in time with the music.”

19-year-old Kira Iaconetti
Ninteen-year-old Kira Iaconetti was a singing star until a brain tumor developed in the part of her brain that held her talent. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

Those short episodes would pass, and once they did, Kira could get right back to singing, although she felt a little drained. She had no idea if these little glitches were normal—maybe other performers had them as well?

After tolerating the talent blackouts for a few years, the young star decided to ask a doctor about them.

“Forcing myself to sing after one of these glitches was extremely difficult by this point. I would become incoherent, slurring, and stuttering my words,” she told Seattle Children’s Hospital, where she went for treatment.

“That was good enough reason to go back to the neurologist, ” she said.

It is a good thing for Kira that she did.

Doctors mapped Kira’s brain
Doctors mapped the areas of Kira’s brain responsible for her musical talent. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

Music-Triggered Epilepsy

It turned out that Kira was having minor epileptic seizures—and these seizures, for some reason, were only triggered by music.

An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a sort of magnetic X-ray) revealed a tiny tumor in Kira’s right temporal lobe—precisely in the part of her brain that processed music.

“Her tumor was discovered because of a very unusual type of epilepsy she had called musicogenic epilepsy,” said Dr. Jason Hauptman, a neurosurgeon in Seattle Children’s Neurosciences Center. “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.”

“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,” Kira said. “Messing with it could permanently affect my voice, and 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. He didn’t want to interfere with my ability to sing.”

Doctors put Kira to sleep
Doctors put Kira to sleep and opened up her skull. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

Unique Technique to Preserve Kira’s Talents

Hauptman decided to try an unusual approach to the surgery—he wanted to keep Kira conscious while he probed her brain, to be able to chart the exact pathways of the nerve signals that gave Kira her musical gifts.

Hauptman hoped to be able to remove the tumor without removing Kira’s hopes and dreams.

“Our focus was not only on taking care of the tumor, but making her life better. We wanted to preserve the things she cares about like her passion for pursuing a career in musical theater,” Hauptman said.

Musical Exercises on the Operating Table

Hauptman worked with neuropsychologists, Drs. Hillary Shurtleff and Molly Warner, and music therapist David Knott, to develop a set of vocal exercises Kira could perform during surgery, to map which areas of her brain contained her musical abilities.

She was also asked to pick a song to sing during surgery, to make sure that the doctors were not probing necessary areas of her brain.

“We’ve never had a patient sing in the operating room before, and Kira is such a talented musician,” Shurtleff said. “Her voice is so beautiful and her willingness to do something new helped make the whole process interactive, collaborative and exciting.”

Kira sang while surgeons cut into her brain
Kira sang Weezer’s “Islands in the Sun” while surgeons cut into her brain. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

Delicate Dissection

To start the surgery, Kira was put to sleep and the surgeons removed a piece of her skull, to access her brain.

Then, Kira was awakened.

The surgeons used electric probes to stimulate different portions of the brain around the tumor while Kira sang. So long as Kira could hold pitch, the surgeons knew they weren’t about to remove something important.

The song Kira chose to sing during the surgery was “Island in the Sun,” which had been a hit for the band Weezer in 2001.

After singing the line “I can’t control my brain,” Kira quipped “Literally.”

Apparently the portion of her brain that gave her a sense of humor was not affected by the tumor.

Kira played guitar and sang 2 days after surgery
Kira was back to making music just two days after her surgery. (Screenshot/Seattle Children’s Hospital via Storyful)

Rapid Recovery

Once the tumor had been removed, the doctors put Kira back to sleep to close her wound.

Hospital staff gave Kira two days to recover. Then music therapist David Knott brought Kira an acoustic guitar and the pair launched into some duets.

“After taking some time to warm up, she nailed the pitches and her tone sounded great,” Knott said. “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.”

Hauptman said Kira’s tumor was a “low-grade glioma,” a slow-growing, basically benign tumor that was probably entirely gone, never to return.

Now that the tumor has been removed, there are no more medical obstacles on the teen’s journey to stardom.

“My biggest fear before the surgery was that the seizures would get in the way of performing,” Kira said. “Now, I want to get back to the stage, to performing as soon as I can.”

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