Weekly Feature



2017-11-01 / Lifestyles

Music aids conductor’s recovery of brain aneurysm

by HOLLY N. LIPKA Reporter


Thomas Witakowski suffered a brain aneurysm on Dec. 2, 2016, which left him in a coma for an entire month. Ten months later, he has regained all normal functions with the exception of crossed eyes, and has returned as music director of the Amherst Chamber Ensembles. He will conduct at the ACE’s season opener “Winds in Autumn,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at Trinity United Methodist Church, 711 Niagara Falls Blvd. Thomas Witakowski suffered a brain aneurysm on Dec. 2, 2016, which left him in a coma for an entire month. Ten months later, he has regained all normal functions with the exception of crossed eyes, and has returned as music director of the Amherst Chamber Ensembles. He will conduct at the ACE’s season opener “Winds in Autumn,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at Trinity United Methodist Church, 711 Niagara Falls Blvd. For Thomas Witakowski, music is more than notes on a staff.

“It’s who I am,” he said.

As a conductor of many Western New York groups and an associate professor at Buffalo State College, he teaches musicians to use imagery as a tool when performing music.

“My ears see images of the music,” he said. “When I’m conducting, I ask the musicians, ‘What did you see? What are you imagining? What are you feeling?’ It really makes them think.”

It’s this same concept and active listening skills that helped Witakowski recover after suffering from a brain aneurysm on Dec. 2, 2016. The aneurysm left him in a coma for an entire month.

His doctor insisted music be incorporated into his therapy after realizing his profession. Nurses would hold their phones to his ears and play music, hoping it would help Witakowski wake up from his coma.

Witakowski woke up from his coma in January and 10 months later, he has almost fully recovered from the aneurysm. He has regained all normal functions with the exception of crossed eyes, and has returned to Buffalo State and as music director of the Amherst Chamber Ensembles.

The ACE will welcome his return at the season opener “Winds in Autumn,” which Witakowski will conduct at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at Trinity United Methodist Church, 711 Niagara Falls Blvd. The concert is free, but donations are accepted.

“We’re absolutely thrilled that he’s back,” said Yvonne Verplanke, ACE board member and cellist. “It wasn’t the same without him.”

On the day of his brain aneurysm, Witakowski thought he had a massive headache. He went to take a nap thinking it would make him feel better, but it only got worse.

“I wound up crawling on my hands and knees, and pulling the telephone down to call 911.”

EMTs rushed him to Mercy Hospital where he underwent brain surgery.

“I barely remember being wheeled into the emergency room and for that entire month I don’t remember a thing. I have a hole in my life.”

He missed Christmas that year, and missed it so much, that he set up a little Christmas tree in his bedroom when he returned home from the hospital.

“It’s not that I can’t remember it, there is nothing there. I light the Christmas tree when I’m in my room because

I missed that Christmas so much.”

That December in the hospital, a touring chorale from Onondaga visited and sang carols in the hallways. Nurses wheeled Witakowski’s bed into the hallway so he could listen and when he heard the music, nurses were shocked to see him lift up his hands and begin to conduct. That’s when his doctor insisted music be part of his therapy.

He gradually began to regain consciousness and woke up on Jan. 2.

“I woke up in the frame of mind that this was it. I was going to have to retire and maybe take disability,” he said.

One evening when he was listening to the opera “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi, he had an epiphany: he couldn’t live without music.

“In the middle of one of the big, powerful scenes I thought to myself, ‘This is who I am. I am not ready to give it up yet.’”

From then on, he was determined to get better, completed months of therapy and returned to doing what he was destined for.

“It’s like being at the bottom of a mountain and this whole time I’ve been crawling and fighting my way up to get to the top. It has been hard, but I know it’s been the best thing for me.”

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