Monday, October 29, 2007

Pianist’s passion survives stroke

Sharon Sifferman, who shares her talents with patients, says she never doubted she’d play again.

Photo caption: Sharon Sifferman has played piano since age 7 and now volunteers twice a week to play in the lobby of Hulston Cancer Center. Her family feared her 2004 stroke might mean the end of her music, but Sifferman says quitting was never an option.

Every Wednesday and Thursday Sharon Sifferman can be found playing the baby grand piano in the lobby of Hulston Cancer Center. As she plays, patients and visitors alike can be seen nodding in appreciation or overheard complimenting the music. “Oh how lovely,” one female patient says of Sifferman’s playing as she’s being wheeled into the building for treatment.
They may appreciate her music, but few know to appreciate what a feat it is that she is able to be a volunteer musician with the hospital. Only three short years ago, Sifferman – who has played the piano since age 7 and is now a 30-year veteran organist for St. Joseph Catholic Church – suffered a stroke that family feared had permanently robbed her ability to walk or care for herself independently. Even if her recovery went well, they thought it was very unlikely she would ever play music again.
Sifferman was shopping alone in January 2004 when she suddenly started having trouble walking and began tripping over her own feet. At first she dismissed it as restless leg syndrome. It wasn’t until she couldn’t raise her left hand to get a clerk’s attention that she realized something worse was happening. Then her speech began to slur. An employee eventually helped her to a chair and encouraged her to get to a hospital. Sifferman didn’t think she needed an ambulance, she says, until she tried to get up and couldn’t stand. From that point it was only a matter of minutes before calls were made and her husband, daughter and EMS were at the store. Sifferman was suffering a series of small strokes.
“I don’t remember much after that,” she admits.
That’s because when she arrived at the ER she experienced a major stroke that left her unable to use her left side and impaired her speech.
“When I saw her in the ICU, I pretty much right then and there resigned myself that I would have to take her home and care for her for the rest of her life,” says Sifferman’s husband, Kenneth.
But she had much different plans.
In fact, Sifferman suffered her stroke on a Tuesday and informed doctors she had to play a funeral on Friday. They gently told her not to plan on making that appointment.
“I guess even then and the shape I was in, it never really occurred to me that I still wouldn’t play,” Sifferman says. “I remember thinking that if I can’t play, I don’t need be here ... but I never thought I wouldn’t.”
After five days in the ICU, Sifferman says a psychiatrist was sent in to talk to her.
“I remember they asked me how I felt about not being able to play music again,” recalls Sifferman. “I told them I wouldn’t be happy with that option.”
Kenneth says doctors told him that his wife’s stubbornness was actually going to be an asset in this situation and they recommend she be moved to Cox Walnut Lawn where she could receive a variety of therapies — including playing the keyboard.
Sifferman was taken to CWL in a wheelchair, and as she says, with the help of prayers, good doctors, a lot of hard work and her music, she was soon able to use a walker and finally walked with the assistance of a therapy belt. Only three weeks later she left the facility walking on her own.
“I made a pot of chili when I got home ... all by myself,” she says smiling at the accomplishment.
That April, Sifferman made her official return to church by playing Easter Sunday services. When she finished playing the service, the congregation erupted into thunderous applause in support and appreciation of her ordeal.
Now 57, Sifferman continues her therapy by playing with the Healing Through Music volunteer musician program at Cox. Not only does it allow her to maintain agility in her fingers (she still experiences stiffness in her left hand) but it offers her the opportunity to use her love of music to help comfort others facing a difficult medical situation. She started playing in the Hulston lobby in July and each week can be heard playing many popular easy listening tunes such as “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
She recently had a couple who receive regular treatments at Hulston ask her to play “Laura” - a piece Sifferman says is difficult due to the many left hand notes, but one she immediately went to work on to be able to honor the request. In addition, she has even started to play the violin to further work her left hand.
“Sometimes my hand gives up and I just screech the violin,” she says laughing.
“But I keep at it. I work at it because I want others to know not to give up.”
Sifferman understands she may never have the strength in her left hand to play certain notes as loud as she would like, and she says she misses a note every now and then but she plans “to continue to play until they throw me out.
“Music is just my life.”