The 19-year-old self-taught musician, Kira Iaconetti’s passion, is singing and performing on stage. She spent her entire young life performing in plays and musicals until about four years ago when she began noticing a strange reaction whenever she was singing or listening to music.
“It was like a light switch turned off in my brain,” said Iaconetti. Suddenly, I was tone deaf, I couldn’t process the words in time with the music, and I couldn’t sing.”
Iaconetti would have these two-minute “episodes” and then return to normal although strangely exhausted. Still, she didn’t worry about the occurrences until their frequency increased. Worried that it would eventually affect her performance on stage, she followed up with a neurologist she had previously visited near her home in Lynden, Washington.
“Forcing myself to sing after one of these glitches was extremely difficult by this point. I would become incoherent, slurring, and stuttering my words,” she said. “That was good enough reason to go back to the neurologist.”
Iaconetti and her mom went to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where a neurologist told her that the episodes were a type of seizure that only occurred when her brain was exposed to music. An MRI showed that there was a calcified tumor that pushed up against her auditory cortex, causing the seizures, “in sort of a twisted joke from the universe,” she said.
Iaconetti would need brain surgery to remove the tumor. Because of the tumor’s location, the Seattle Children’s epilepsy surgery team took an innovative, personalized approach to plan her surgery.
Working with his fellow doctors, Dr. Jason Hauptman, a pediatric neurosurgeon, formulated a surgery plan that would allow them to remove the tumor while hopefully preserving the teen’s ability to sing and process musical notes.
He decided on an awake craniotomy where he went into Iaconetti’s brain while she was under anesthesia and then woke her up to sing, igniting the areas of the brain that work when she’s using her musical abilities.
Doctors put Iaconetti back to sleep after the intraoperative awake mapping exercise and finished up the surgery smoothly. She was back to singing and playing guitar 48 hours later from her hospital bed.
“Our focus is not only on taking care of the tumor, [it’s] about making her life better and preserving the things she cares about,” said Hauptman.