By Damon Orion
In March 2006, U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Benjamin Tourtelot was leading an Australian rappel training exercise in Hawaii. Due to an equipment malfunction, he fell headfirst from a helicopter to the landing zone 110 feet below. As well as sustaining a shattered skull, two broken arms, and a severed optic nerve, he lost his pituitary gland and a significant portion of the right frontal lobe of his brain.
Tourtelot was in a coma for three and a half weeks. “They told my wife, who was pregnant, and my mom, ‘Zero chance of survival,’” he explains. “They said, ‘You need to go in there and just be with him until he passes so that you can have those memories, because he will not come out of this.’”
After stunning his loved ones by emerging from the coma, Tourtelot spent four and a half months in an intensive care unit. The accident left him legally blind and suffering from a catastrophic brain injury. With cerebrospinal fluid filling the spaces where pieces of his brain used to be, he found himself in unbearable pain.
“I used to just lie in bed and pray for death, because the only time I didn’t feel pain was if I was asleep,” he notes. “I would go weeks without sleeping, and I would just sit there and stare at the ceiling. I used to yell at doctors: ‘Fix the pain or take my life.’”
In 2009, while living at a residential facility for neurological rehabilitation, Tourtelot began working with a music therapist in the hopes of recovering some of his coordination. In the process, he found an unexpected source of temporary pain relief.
“People would think that maybe listening to music would exacerbate headaches, migraines, but actually, it can help to distract away from that pain, [because] your brain can’t process those two things at once,” says Tourtelot’s music therapist, Rebecca Vaudreuil, Ed.M., MT-BC, who is a part of the San Diego-based music therapy center Resounding Joy. “When your brain is processing music, the whole brain is [involved]. If you’re playing, it’s even more so, because you have the physicality now.”
She adds that making music with other people adds to the social engagement. This involves many parts of the brain, including the primary motor cortex responsible for movement planning, the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which support cognition and memory, and the cerebellum, which is connected to attention and coordination. “Music elicits the formation of strong associations and memory activation in listeners, which prompts response from parts of the limbic system — brain structures located on top of the brainstem and buried under the cortex,” she offers. “[The limbic system] is involved in identifying and processing emotions and motivations related to survival, such as fear, anger and pleasure.”
Vaudreuil also notes that neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to create new neural pathways— plays an important role in music therapy. “The brain is able to rewire [not only] if there is actual physical damage to the brain, but if there is any kind of emotional blockage as well, where the brain is protecting itself by saying, ‘We’re not going to think about this or tap into this emotional center,’” she explains.
The therapist adds that songwriting is especially useful in this respect. “It really acts as a catalyst to be able to do advanced types of [therapeutic] work,” she offers. “With songwriting, sometimes you’re expressing and communicating a lot of inner thoughts and feelings that you don’t share verbally.”
As noted in the works of neurologist/author Oliver Sacks and in films like The Music Never Stopped and Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, scientists are discovering that music-related memories are stored in a different area of the brain than other kinds of memories. Vaudreuil witnessed this phenomenon when she began writing songs with Tourtelot in music therapy sessions. “What I saw right away was that he would have everything that he wrote in a session memorized by the end of that session,” she states. “So it really helped his working memory; it helped his short-term memory.”
Tourtelot is able to sing many of his songs from memory. “I started testing this the third or fourth year,” Vaudreuil recalls. “He has them all committed to memory.” This is especially notable in light of the extent to which Tourtelot’s traumatic brain injury has compromised his memory. “Ben will sometimes forget: we’ll say, ‘Okay, [let’s do a Skype session at] 5:30 today,’” Vaudreuil says. “He’ll [say,] ‘Remind me. Call me a half hour before,’ because the short-term memory is really affected.”
Tourtelot laughingly chimes in, “I’ll be on the phone with her, and she’ll say, ‘Five minutes.’ I’m like, ‘I’ll be there.’ I’ll get off the phone and start doing something, and ten minutes later, she’s like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Vaudreuil and Tourtelot have written approximately 20 songs together. Tourtelot says these songs have helped him form an “unbreakable bond” with his 9-year-old daughter, who is the inspiration for many of his lyrics.
Along with composing music as a means of strengthening his memory and cognitive capacities, Tourtelot is currently learning to play ukulele to improve his coordination. He and Vaudreuil have also compiled what the latter refers to as a “prescription playlist — about 65 songs that are associated to every mood he has: ‘If you’re having a sad day, start here and end here. If you’re angry, start with this playlist, and it will take you through a journey.’”
According to Vaudreuil, music therapy can enhance and interface with other forms of rehabilitation related to speech, cognition, motor skills, and coordination. “Even with the drum kit, you’re using both legs and your upper and lower extremities, so you’re fully physically engaged,” she says. “So it works a lot with different disciplines together.”
Since beginning this therapy, Tourtelot has performed his music at the aforementioned neurological rehabilitation center as well as at music therapy conferences, fundraisers, art shows, concerts, and other events. He has also volunteered as a music therapy assistant at a center for developmental disabilities, where his training as a military instructor served him well. “His leadership qualities really came out when he was assisting in music therapy sessions, especially the ones with other service members, because he had that initial camaraderie, and people understood what he went through,” Vaudreuil offers.
Tourtelot credits Vaudreuil with saving his life. “Before I met her, I never came out of my room except to eat, and that was rarely,” he says. “I was dying. Whether the doctors wanted to believe it or not, I was dying, and she brought me back to life with music. Now I am light as air on my feet. I’m happy as can be. I’m able to live; I’m able to have a life; I’m able to talk to you right now.”
Much like his comments about the positive impact that Vaudreuil has had on his life, the lyrics of Tourtelot’s song “God’s Gift” are surprisingly tender for the words of a tough retired Marine:
What happens in life is an amazing thing.
It brings joy; it brings love; it makes me want to sing.
Music created a new perspective for me to see,
Like new eyes in this journey of self-discovery.