From Coma Through Recovery, Told in Jazz

CUMC brings Fred Hersch’s “My Coma Dreams” to Miller Theatre

Jazz theater and medicine are not the likeliest of bedfellows, but the two came together at Columbia’s Miller Theatre on the Morningside campus this March in two performances of the New York premiere of “My Coma Dreams,” by celebrated pianist and composer Fred Hersch. The jazz theater piece was presented by CUMC’s Program in Narrative Medicine in association with Miller Theatre.

Medical faculty joined an audience of musicians and jazz fans for a program that told a story of illness through music.  In “My Coma Dreams,” Mr. Hersch, who is HIV+, used a ten-piece ensemble, an actor’s narration, and video projections to convey his journey from illness through recovery, including two months in a medically induced coma. Alternating between the perspective of Hersch, whose vivid musical dreams inspired the piece, and that of his partner, Scott, at his bedside in the ICU, the show gives a complex and moving portrait of illness.

“That Fred Hersch used music to tell about being close to death struck me as such a breakthrough,” said Dr. Rita Charon, the executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine, as well as a professor of clinical medicine and a literary scholar.  Bringing Hersch to campus for grand rounds, where he performed excerpts of “My Coma Dreams” to a packed house, led to her involvement in producing the full staged version.

“When I first heard Hersch interviewed on NPR years ago, I said, ‘I’ve got to know more about this guy. His music is going to tell me something that, as a doctor, I'd otherwise never know.” What it taught her, and the audience, was about the richness—including the fear, humor, and creativity—of the experience.

Thomas Brannagan, MD, a professor of clinical neurology and director of the peripheral neuropathy center, said he was struck by the internal life Hersch had throughout the experience. “I think often when we examine comatose patients, we focus on treating infections and making sure they are hemodynamically stable. We may not consider their internal life,” he said.

“Even though he appeared comatose, he was still thinking about music,” said Dr. Brannagan, adding that he was particularly struck by the dream sequence in which Hersch was in a cage beside the deceased jazz musician Thelonious Monk.

The sensitive portrait the piece evoked was exactly what Dr. Charon wanted, as her program focuses on helping clinicians connect more deeply to their patients.

“We always say that narrative medicine creates something like a clearing in the forest,” said Dr. Charon.  “With the narrative work, doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, and patients can come together and better understand each other. A woman dying of breast cancer and her chemotherapy nurse may be on opposite sides of an illness, but they are united on the grounds of being human.” The narrative medicine work helps the clinician to experience that unity, leading to more compassionate care.

Hersch is glad if his work has that effect on clinicians.

"I hope that they will be more able to relate to what my partner Scott went through and perhaps be a bit more sensitive to caregivers of patients in the ICU,” said Hersch. He then added, “A patient in the ICU is more than just numbers on a chart—or a diagnosis.”

Judging from the standing ovations both performances received, the audience got the message.


Coma Dreams, Fred Hersch, Hersch, ICU, Medicine, Miller Theatre, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, Thelonious Monk