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Neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Solomon Helps Piano Player Get Back to His Music

Photo of piano player Kevin Chambers and Dr. Robert Solomon after Musician Kevin Chamber Steedle shares his experience of having an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) surgery
Arteriovenous malformation (AVM) surgery patient, Kevin Chambers Steedle, with Dr. Solomon.

Here’s how committed Kevin Chambers Steedle is to his music: He feels lucky that the bleed in his brain was near the speech center of his brain. If it had been close to the parts he uses to play piano instead, he says, “I would have had to relearn everything.”

Today, Kevin — KC to his friends — can play piano and speak again. He is back at his bench, writing songs, playing and singing at clubs and festivals, even working on a new EP (short album). But last year, when Kevin was 27, a sudden stroke took away his ability to speak and put his life in danger. He looks back on the experience with a kind of wonder, and with gratitude to Dr. Robert Solomon for restoring his abilities and saving his life.

In 2015, Kevin was living in New York City, playing shows and collaborating with other musicians. The afternoon of Friday, March 13, he was in New Jersey setting up for a radio show. With no warning, he was struck with a debilitating headache. He had to sit down. He tried to speak, but no words came out. He threw up. A friend brought him a chair. And that’s the last thing he remembers for a week.

Unbeknownst to Kevin — or to anyone else — he had a tangle of blood vessels in his brain known as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Some AVMs can rupture and leak blood, and this is what Kevin’s was doing: leaking blood directly into his brain.

Kevin’s friends called 911, and an ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital. There the AVM was discovered, and the bleed stopped on its own. Kevin’s sister, another NYC resident, met him at the hospital, and his parents drove up from North Carolina overnight. Kevin doesn’t remember anything about this time, but his friends and family tell him he was awake and aware — though he still couldn’t speak.

Kevin’s parents, both dentists, knew they wanted him to be at a large hospital with neurosurgeons experienced with AVM treatment. Kevin’s uncle, a physician in Philadelphia, invited them to a well-respected hospital there and offered his house to Kevin’s family. Kevin’s parents accepted, and a helicopter transferred Kevin from the hospital in New Jersey to the hospital in Philadelphia.

Kevin spent two weeks in that hospital, undergoing tests and recuperating under the watchful eye of the doctors and nurses. Then he was discharged, with daily appointments for speech therapy and physical therapy. The doctors recommended that Kevin let his brain heal for four weeks, then return for radiation surgery to treat the AVM.

Since the AVM was so close to the language area of the brain, the doctors did not think it should be treated with traditional open brain surgery. A complication of such surgery could be permanent damage to the language area — unlikely, but potentially devastating. Doing “surgery” with targeted doses of radiation instead would avoid that risk and all other risks that go along with open surgery.

The only drawback would be that the radiation surgery wouldn’t have its full effect immediately. Instead, it might resolve the AVM over the course of months or even years.

Kevin’s parents wanted to be sure this was the best approach. AVMs are notoriously difficult to treat, and different neurosurgeons have different opinions and levels of experience with these conditions. Now that they had a little time to breathe, his parents researched the top AVM doctors in the United States. And that’s how they found Neurosurgery Department Chair Dr. Robert Solomon.

Dr. Solomon’s secretary, Janet, got them an appointment with Dr. Solomon quickly, and Kevin and his mom took the train to New York. Kevin remembers how confident and straightforward Dr. Solomon seemed as soon as they met him. Dr. Solomon reviewed Kevin’s test results, the exact location of his AVM, its pattern of blood flow, its history and its size.

To Dr. Solomon, the best choice for treating this AVM was not the relatively slow course of radiation therapy. He felt that the AVM might have an aneurysm in it — a bulging, weakened blood vessel that is especially prone to bleeding. In his opinion, the best course was clear: surgery to remove the AVM as soon as possible.

Kevin’s mom asked, “If it were your kid, would you say we need to have surgery?”

Dr. Solomon replied, “Absolutely I’d take it out. We need to get it out.”

The family took the weekend to decide, then called Dr. Solomon’s office on Monday with a “yes.” On Tuesday, Kevin was back at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Before the surgery to remove the malformation, endovascular neurosurgeon Dr. Sean Lavine embolized the AVM, threading a small device into it that would seal the abnormal blood vessels with a glue-like substance. (Read more about AVM embolization here.)

During the embolization, Dr. Lavine found an aneurysm in the AVM. Kevin and his parents felt even more sure they had made the right decision in finding Dr. Solomon. If the aneurysm had ruptured while they waited for the full effects of the radiation surgery to take hold … well, they didn’t want to think about it.

After the embolization, Kevin stayed in the hospital overnight. The next morning he went into brain surgery. Dr. Solomon had told Kevin’s parents the surgery could take as few as three hours, or as many as six or more. At the six-hour mark, says Kevin, his mom kind of started to “freak out.”

And then Dr. Solomon came out. He said the surgery was a hundred percent successful. Kevin’s mom hugged him, and there were tears of joy in the waiting room.

Kevin remembers waking up that afternoon with a whopper of a headache. But unlike the headache that had started the ordeal, which was due to a life-threatening problem, this headache had a wonderful cause: the successful surgery to remove the AVM.

With the AVM gone, even through the pain, Kevin noticed something else. His ability to speak, which had been coming back slowly, had just made a huge jump. He could speak better than he had been able to for weeks.

Kevin thinks of that day with the same wonder and emotion that fuel his songwriting. “The day of the surgery was the happiest day of my life,” he says. That evening, when the headache had gone down, “I had a moment where I realized the AVM had been taken out of my brain, and I just lost it.

“My parents and my girlfriend and my sister and her boyfriend were all around me, and I was reaching out to them and I just couldn’t believe it … It was incredible relief, and the fact that Dr. Solomon had saved my life by taking this out … it was amazing.”

Photo of piano player Kevin Chambers at Musikfest (8_14_15)
Kevin Chambers performing at Musikfest.

Dr. Solomon came to check on Kevin on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Friday, Kevin walked out of the hospital under his own power. “Keep walking,” said Dr. Solomon. It was good for him.

Kevin kept walking, kept recuperating, kept gaining strength, and kept playing music. Boy, did he keep playing music.

Before the AVM, he had applied to play at Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, America’s largest nongated free music festival. He was accepted, and a mere four months after surgery, he played on stage there.

Kevin has recovered all his language, and he says the experience with his AVM has changed him for the better. For one thing, he is making his dreams a reality sooner rather than later.

A successful Kickstarter campaign this winter allowed him to work on his latest album, Starting Over, which he released on July 8, 2016. (Find out more about Kevin’s music at kevinchambersmusic.com.)

Kevin appreciates Dr. Solomon’s care, and he appreciates his Kickstarter supporters, but most of all he appreciates life more now. “I love everyone I meet,” he says. “It’s just been such a huge blessing to have this happen and to come out on the right side of things. I’m alive and that is a gift. You only get one life. It’s just been incredible.”

Learn more about Dr. Solomon on his bio page.
Learn more about Dr. Lavine on his bio page.

Learn more about Columbia Neurosurgeons and the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia.

Photos courtesy of Kevin Chamber Steedle.

patient journey

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