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Music Serves as Therapy During Brain Injury Rehabilitation

Shepherd Center therapist uses music to help her client rediscover his voice.

The words were barely audible – by some accounts, nothing more than a whisper.

But they were the first words spoken in months, and that’s what mattered – not how loud they were, but the fact that they were being uttered at all.

“I’m a little dysfunctional, Don’t you know?

If you push me, it might be bad

Get a little emotional, Don’t you know?”

As the song “Dysfunctional,” by Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne, played on an iPad, 16-year-old Kyle Pinelli joined in the chorus, mouthing some words, whispering others and occasionally, even slightly, nodding his head.

It was a breakthrough moment for the Virginia teen who, during a car accident months earlier, was ejected through the front windshield of the vehicle he was driving and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury.

When paramedics arrived at the scene, Kyle, whose body landed on a barbed wire fence, was barely breathing. It was unclear if he’d survive the helicopter flight to the hospital. Kyle had broken bones throughout his body, multiple hemorrhages and respiratory failure. In total, his admitting diagnoses listed 26 secondary injuries.

“It was just like what you read about – where doctors come and tell you that they don’t know how much a patient will recover,” recalls Kyle’s mom, Joan Pinelli. “We didn’t know if he would walk, he had so many broken bones. He was in a coma for three weeks.”

Even after he awoke from the coma, the path ahead seemed impossibly daunting. His recovery involved multiple surgeries, hundreds of stitches and countless hours of therapy.

But Kyle is a fighter. And this is a story of triumph, perseverance, hope and the power of music.

Not long after he awoke from that coma, Kyle was flown to Shepherd Center to begin his journey back.

The Power of Music

Sometimes, music reaches people in ways other therapies cannot. It travels deep into the recesses of a person’s mind, touching upon emotions, memories and feelings. And the result is a person being pulled from the darkness of a brain injury, into the light, amid the melodies and lyrics.

Kyle started listening to Tech N9ne when he was about 13 years old. His brother Alex introduced him to the rapper, and Kyle became an instant fan, constantly listening to and singing Tech’s songs.

Over the years, Alex and Kyle attended Tech N9ne concerts together. For one of those concerts, Alex surprised Kyle by buying VIP tickets to meet the rapper before the show. It was one of many highlights of Kyle’s busy life.

“I was a very active kid,” Kyle says. “I played basketball my whole life, I was on the high school team. I pole vaulted, and I got into motocross, and that was my all-time favorite sport. I would ride in our backyard every day and at tracks on the weekends.”

But when Kyle arrived at Shepherd Center, he was a different person. Recreation therapist Anastasia Ford recalls his movements were limited to looking upward and fixating and offering a thumbs up.

The goals for a patient in this condition include achieving a response to sensory stimuli and visual tracking. Music, Ford says, can often be a big motivator.

“Especially for someone in a newly emerged state,” she explains. “It hits all of that long-term memory.”

For Kyle, music worked wonders. After three or four weeks of therapy, Ford learned from Kyle’s family about his love for Tech N9ne and decided to give it a try. The results marked a major turning point.

“He went from not verbally communicating to singing a song,” Ford recalls. “He was able to maintain attention and sing. It wasn’t full-on, crystal-clear singing, but mouthing the words. And he was creating some whispers. It was a perfect glimmer of who Kyle was and the potential he had.”

That potential continued to show itself and multiply over the coming weeks. Ford relied heavily on music to facilitate Kyle’s continued progress, and during that time, he began voicing and singing words more and more, and then moving his arms and legs, and maintaining attention. Eventually, he transitioned from individual therapy to a music therapy group with other patients.

He also began walking again. Kyle’s first few steps were fragile and faltering, but much like his speaking skills, with practice and patience, the familiar returned.

What if you Fly?

Since returning home from Shepherd Center, life has been busy for Kyle and his family.

On May 31, 2015, one year to the day after his accident, Kyle’s family watched him walk across a stage to accept his high school diploma. After the year the Pinelli family had just been through, it was finally a day of smiles and hopeful optimism.

Kyle’s next stop would be North Carolina to study auto mechanics. He attends school five days a week.

Kyle continues to struggle with physical and mental issues related to the accident. He doesn’t remember much of the recovery process at Shepherd Center that people have talked so much about, nor has his short-term memory returned.

“I put my keys down somewhere and walk away and forget where they are,” he says. “I hate that.”

He feels lucky to be alive, but also has many challenges and stresses to cope with every day – between schoolwork and living on his own.

As Joan wrote in her blog about Kyle’s accident, he continues to make enormous strides, yet there is still much healing to take place.

On Joan’s blog , there is a video that shows Kyle taking his very first steps at Shepherd Center with the help of therapists. Initially, Kyle stumbles, but in the background you can hear an eruption of encouragement and joy.

Joan thought of that moment as she watched her son walk to accept his high school diploma. The words of poet Erin Hanson came to Joan’s mind as Kyle strode confidently forward:

“What if I fall?

Oh, but my darling

What if you fly?”

By Mia Taylor

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.