Stroke victim recovering using music as medicine

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich--  A West Michigan man is using music to heal and cope with the hardships of life.

Aaron Russell is partially blind and suffers from limited mobility to the right side of his body. In 2014, he suffered a stroke and lost his ability to talk. Since then, he's had 15 blood clots and six operations on his head.

His parents describe Russell as intelligent and fun, a lover of music and former sailor for the U.S Navy.

Although Russell's life drastically changed in 2014, his love for music never went away. He has 23 guitars at home all waiting to be played. Now, his dream is to get back on stage with a guitar in his hand.

Norma Russell, his mom, told FOX 17 what life was like with her son before and after his stroke.

"I don't like, you know, that he can't speak. He's not the same Aaron that used to play the guitar and be a live wire and everything," said Norma. "It's just shown me a lot of things that are still beautiful."

It's the healing power of music that is helping Aaron work on his motor, cognitive and speech skills.

"We were told he may never walk, we were told he may not be able to recognize you," said Norma.  "I guess being a human being we wanted a big miracle... it's been slow and it's sometimes been hard but it lets you see the blessings every single week."

Now, Aaron is able to walk with a cane and is able to say the words "I love you" to his 10-year-old son. However, Aaron still struggles to get his thoughts out.

"When he first saw Erin with a guitar, the therapist and she started playing he turned his head and that was even a big deal for him to turn his head and he smiled."

FOX 17 spoke with Erin Wagner, a music therapist at Spectrum Health.

"A lot of what we know about music is that it's a whole brain experience," said Wagner.  "And if one part of the brain is damaged we can often draw from this entire neuron-circuitry and music can help access those areas and piece those areas together."

Wagner tells FOX 17 music therapy is based on research and evidence so all of the intervention a therapist uses is how the music affects the brain and body.

It's through music that's helping Aaron find his voice and gain back coordination through the use of drums.

"We use a lot of singing and rhythmic speech to work on gaining language, vocalizing after a brain injury or stroke," said Wagner. "I think music has a special language, it's something that's universal. It's also something that's based deeply in the brain and it's ingrained, so it's based on rhythm and we can draw on melody to help with a lot of other skills in life."

Wagner believes Russell is teaching her more about life than she is teaching him music and that she feels very fortunate to be a part of his journey.

"I think the clients music therapist are able to work with are able to give back so much more than we give."

To learn more about music therapy offered through Spectrum Health click here.

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