PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Being awake during brain surgery allows doctors to make sure vital areas like the brain’s speech center aren’t damaged.
Usually people talk during the procedure but a Philadelphia-area musician added some songs to the delight of his surgical team.
Zachary Zortman knows about making it through hardship.
The 29-year-old singer and songwriter found out he had brain cancer in September of last year.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” says Zachary.
When he suddenly started slurring words doctors discovered a malignant brain tumor called a glioblastoma.
“Zack’s tumor is on the left side of his brain right in this region which we know language centers exist,” explained Penn neurosurgeon Zarina Ali.
Dr. Ali said to ensure that the tumor was removed without affecting language, it was necessary for Zach to be awake for part of the operation.
Once the brain was exposed, Zachary was briefly awakened and without feeling any pain, his brain was then stimulated in certain places and the changes in his speech guide the surgery.
And he wasn’t just talking.
“We literally gave him a microphone and he started singing,” said Dr. Ali. “That allowed for me to continuously essentially monitor the fact that he was able to produce words coherently and sing while I was then resecting his brain tumor on the other side of the drapes.”
When asked if he remembers singing in the operating room, Zachary says yes he remembers.
After the surgery he had radiation and chemotherapy.
“I think it’s probably the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my life because I don’t take a day for granted,” said Zachery about his diagnosis and treatments.
He says he has a new appreciation for life now.
And with that appreciation came inspiration and a new song and music video called “Meant To Live” which he wrote and dedicated to other cancer patients to break the chains of fear.
“I urge people through this video to find peace with themselves,” he says.
It’s a message that is especially powerful for Dr. Ali who shared the music video with her colleagues.
“This is what matters, that you can do what you love doing,” she said to Zachary as they watched his video.
Zachary is embracing each day by singing and living while knowing there’s a high risk the cancer will come back.
He says his future is right now with a song he’ll keep singing.
In addition to being a musician, Zachary is a child therapist and is engaged to be married.
Dr. Ali says his procedure was the first brain surgery she had where the patient sang.
Interestingly, one of the songs Zachary sang in surgery was “Thinking Out Loud” by singer Ed Sheeran.