Music helps 15-year old Georgia stroke survivor heal

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It's hard to say if Sean Saunders found the music, or the music found him.

But his family believes learning to play the piano has helped bring the Dacula High School sophomore back from something no one expected.

"It's a very, very scary story," Children's Healthcare of Atlanta music therapist Cori Snyder says.

"I've never had anything like that," Sean Saunders echoes.

It was New Year's Eve, 2018.

The 15-year old developed a blinding headache.

"I couldn't see correctly," Saunders says.  "Everything was blurred."

Sean's mother Katty Ramos put Sean to bed, keeping a close eye on him, thinking he might have the flu.

"He said, I'm starting to feel numb," Ramos remembers.  "I said, "That's not normal.'"

By early New Year's Day, Saunders could barely stand up.

"He couldn't walk," his mother says. "He put all of his weight on me on his left side."

Sean Saunders had suffered a stroke.

It landed him in the intensive care unit of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, struggling to move the left side of his body.

"He had no hand movement at all," Cori Snyder remembers.

Snyder, who works with Children's inpatient rehabilitation program, was told Saunders play viola at Dacula High School and loved music.

"When I brought him to our music therapy room, he saw that piano and his eyes lit up," Snyder says.

So, they began to play.

"He was such a music lover," Snyder says. "We started with that right hand, and doing some successful improvisational things with his right hand, and then slowly integrating his left hand with what he could do."

She asked Sean to focus on playing with his left thumb and index finger.

"When I first started, it was a little difficult because it was like I knew I could do it, but I couldn't, and I'd get frustrated," Saunders says.

But the two stayed at it, playing together every day.

Snyder used the piano's rhythm to help Sean's brain to remember how to move his hand and finger muscles.

"And without that rhythm, the brain doesn't have the priming it needs to coordinate motion," Snyder says.  "But. once you add that predictive rhythm with the piano and the music, then you can really drive those motor patterns and help them redevelop."

Saunders stayed with it.

"I mean I couldn't play correctly or nicely, but I was able to play music," he says.  "That was awesome.  That calmed me down."

Saunders' healing has been remarkable.

He went home from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta just one week after his stroke and was back to school within 2 weeks.

When he left the hospital, he went home with a donated keyboard Cori Snyder had found for him.

"That was awesome," Saunders says.  "I was pretty, not pretty excited. I was really excited when I got that home."

Today, he's still undergoing physical and occupational therapy, but Saunders says he feels great.

"I feel awesome. I'm almost to 100 percent, just a little bit more work," he says.