'Doctors told me I'd never walk again, but now I'm performing in six-inch heels': How music therapy helped singer Melody Gardot beat catastrophic brain damage

By
Richard Barber

PUBLISHED:

21:27 GMT, 9 June 2012

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UPDATED:

22:05 GMT, 9 June 2012

The video for jazz singer Melody Gardot’s biggest hit, Baby I’m A Fool, features her sitting in a bath wearing nothing but bubbles to protect her modesty, and a pair of sunglasses.

You will not see the star – whose latest album, The Absence, was released last month and went to No 18 in the charts – without her shades. But for Melody, it is not a rock-star affectation.

The tinted spectacles and the elegant cane she carries, are a legacy of a road accident eight years ago that almost robbed her of the ability to walk and talk.

Walking tall: Melody, in trademark tinted glasses, battled back from serious injuries after being knocked off her bike by a car eight years ago

Walking tall: Melody, in trademark tinted glasses, battled back from serious injuries after being knocked off her bike by a car eight years ago

When she was 19, in November 2003, she was cycling at dusk near her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when she was knocked off her bike. The driver of the car that hit her had jumped a red light – with catastrophic consequences.

Melody, 27, suffered trauma to the spine, a broken pelvis, hip damage and devastating brain injuries. Her miraculous recovery is testament to her grit and the skill of her neurologist, Richard Jermyn, who hit upon the idea of using music as a form of rehabilitative therapy.

For years after the accident, Melody travelled everywhere with a physiotherapist and, strapped to her waist, a TENS machine, which releases pain-reducing electrical impulses and is sometimes used by women in childbirth.

Her sight and sound perception were affected by the brain injury. She says: ‘I couldn’t tolerate bright lights or loud sound. I still wear sunglasses most of the time. With too much sound or light, I’d fall asleep. It was my body’s way of coping.’

Recalling the accident, Melody says: ‘All I remember is two large headlights coming towards me. I was dazzled and then I was lying in the road flailing frantically but not able to feel what was happening.’

Doctors had told her she might never walk again or have children. ‘But I was determined to make the impossible possible. Not only did I learn to walk, I can handle 6in heels,’ she smiles, pointing at her stilettos.

The process of putting Melody back together was painstaking.

Long road to recovery: The process of putting Melody back together was painstaking

Long road to recovery: The process of putting Melody back together was painstaking

At one stage she was given an oral IQ test. ‘It wasn’t until they placed me in front of a mirror that I realised only three words in 20 coming out of my mouth were audible,’ she says.

The accident had damaged neural pathways controlling perception and higher mental function. ‘My memory – short and long-term – was shot. By the time I was able to stand in the shower, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d wash my hair and then forget to rinse out the shampoo.

‘I had Post-It notes everywhere. It took months before I could complete a simple routine without prompting.’

She learnt to walk again in water. ‘I had to drag my legs along a submerged treadmill to strengthen them. It was hard, as I couldn’t get my brain to tell my body what to do.’

Dr Pankaj Sharma, a consultant neurologist at The London Clinic, says: ‘Either the brain will reroute and circumvent damaged neural pathways or the person will have to learn particular skills again. The younger you are, the better, because the brain won’t yet have solidified.’

Two factors assist in recovery, says Dr Sharma. One is outside stimulation through rehabilitation, the other co-operation of the patient.

‘If the person is depressed – very common after this kind of injury – recovery will be slower,’ he says.

In this respect, Melody was a model patient. ‘I never asked myself “Why me” ’ she says.

Richard Jermyn, Melody’s doctor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, came up with the idea of using music to speed up her rehabilitation.

From the age of 16, she’d played in piano bars. Now, confined to her bed but able to hold a guitar, she composed her own songs and taught herself to sing. Listening to Stan Getz, she gravitated towards bossa nova rhythms. Her 2009 album, My One And Only Thrill, was a global hit.

She no longer uses a TENS machine and has given her name to a music-therapy programme in New Jersey. She has also switched to a macrobiotic diet, claiming a 30 per cent reduction in pain.

Dr Sharma is unconvinced. ‘There is little proof special diets help post-traumatic brain injury,’ he says. ‘It may be no more than a placebo effect but, if it works for her, then it works.’

Melody says: ‘I still walk a little like the Bride of Frankenstein, with a kind of pussycat swagger.’ But she has no bitterness. ‘A hardy rose can withstand the harshest winter.’

The Absence is out on Decca.