Hitting the High Notes Once More: Brain Injury Survivor Plays On


Without music, life was meaningless for Daniel Stover. “Music is my artistic outlet. I can’t draw. I can’t act. I can’t sing,” says Stover. “Playing an instrument allows me to express my passion for life.”

When a severe hemorrhagic stroke due to a brain tumor left Stover unable to use his left hand, he thought his days of performing were behind him. After a focused rehabilitation program and a novel toggle-key saxophone, Stover can express himself through music once more.

Fueling a Lifelong Passion

After mastering several woodwind instruments, Stover dreamed of becoming a woodwind doubler, a professional who plays multiple instruments in pit orchestras for musicals. After graduating with a degree in clarinet performance, he taught private clarinet and saxophone lessons and played in chamber music concerts and was well on his way.

At 27, Stover developed a severe headache and lost consciousness while at home watching TV. His partner Brian Schellberg called 9-1-1. Stover was taken to a nearby suburban hospital, where a CT scan revealed a hemorrhagic stroke. When the neurosurgeons performed the craniotomy, they found brain tissue they suspected was abnormal and sent it for a biopsy. Soon after, Stover was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He had two brain tumors that caused a bleed in a blood vessel, resulting in the stroke. They told us there was nothing that could be done and advised us to put his affairs in order,” says Schellberg. “Then his mother found Dr. Adan Rios, who asked us to move Danny to the Texas Medical Center.” Dr. Rios, an associate professor in the division of Oncology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, has clinical and research interests in lymphoma, leukemia and immune compromised-related malignancies.

Returning to the Rhythm of Life

While undergoing chemotherapy under the direction of Dr. Rios, Stover began rudimentary physical therapy exercises and was admitted to TIRR Memorial Hermann. There his care was directed by fellowship-trained brain injury specialist Sunil Kothari, M.D., an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine.

“Dr. Kothari would stop by and talk with me about my emotional state, which was not good,” confides Stover. “My physical impairment was also pretty bad. I couldn’t have asked for more personal attention. My nurses were like second mothers to me, and the therapists were wonderful. It was the most nurturing and caring attention I’ve ever received. I consider them all part of my family there.”

The stroke’s severity left Stover still unable to walk when he was discharged, so he underwent outpatient therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation-Kirby Glen, for several months. When he returned to giving music lessons, he had no functional use of his left hand at first.

“To demonstrate phrasing and style by singing, I was only able to toot around on the mouthpiece and neck of the instrument,” he recalls.

Being unable to play his music put Stover into a deep depression. “I was desperate to be able to make music again and get back to teaching on a regular basis,” he says. “Then a former teacher told me about a professor at the University of Nebraska who’d helped develop a toggle-key sax you can play with one hand.

Changing His Technique but Not His Tune

Developed by Jeff Stelling of Stelling Brass & Winds in Kearney, Nebraska, the one-handed saxophone was first introduced at the World Saxophone Congress XIII, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July 2003, five years before Stover suffered his stroke.

Stover sent his sax to Stelling to have it converted to the toggle-key system. “As soon as I sent it off, my depression went away,” he says.

Stelling converted Stover’s Selmer Mark VII alto sax to the toggle-key system and presented it to him at a press conference in Nebraska in January 2012.

“I taught myself how to finger through the patterns during the two-year wait for my sax to be converted,” Stover says. “When I got the instrument, it was just a matter of taking time to learn how much pressure is required for the keys.”

About six months later, he was playing in a group again. Stover gave his first post-stroke recital in March 2014 at a church in The Woodlands.

“It felt wonderful,” he says. “I was a little nervous going into it, but when I started playing I was right back to my old self again.”

To learn more about rehabilitation programs in Houston, visit www.tirr.memorialhermann.org

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Tashika Varma