Andrew Shulman on how music–literally–can save your life

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When I say “my life was saved by music,” I mean it wholeheartedly, but obviously I’m speaking metaphorically.

Like so many I’ve talked to, what my kindred spirits and I really mean is that music helped us find our tribe, or it gave us a positive addiction to tuck ourselves into, or it helped us weather the dark moments of depression or angst.

When Andrew Schulman talks about how music saved his life, he means something different entirely.

Diagnosed with a devastating form of pancreatic cancer at 57, Shulman underwent surgery to determine how extensive his cancer was and just how long he had. When he woke up eight days later, everything about his world had changed dramatically.

Schulman’s book, WAKING THE SPIRIT, is the story of his clinical “death” and the impossible odds of his recovery from a medically induced coma. Remarkably, as he was hours from death, his recovery was spurred by his wife Wendy’s simple leap of faith to put Andrew’s iPhone buds in his ears and unknowingly play his favorite music.

Yeah, you’ve got to read this book.

In fact, I’d love to share our whole 90-minute conversation, a discussion about everything from psychedelic coma dreams to Levon Helm to Pythagorean eight-string lutes. It was a beautiful talk that had me alternatively in tears and laughter, which is about the best way to spend your time as a human. For now, I have to be satisfied with this short clip of Andrew re-telling his harrowing near-death story.

All throughout that re-telling, the twinkle in Andrew’s eyes speaks to the gratitude and the fullness of life that I suspect he has always had. But after talking with him and reading his remarkable story, I’m damn sure that radiance got a lot brighter after his brush with death.

WAKING THE SPIRIT, however, is more than just Andrew’s remarkable recovery story. It’s the story of how music can heal, reform, and even save lives.

It’s also the story of what happened after Andrew woke up. His journey “after death” is just as compelling. Given a second chance, he did what all of us hope we’d do in the same situation—he decided to use his incredible gift to enrich the lives and soothe the pain of others. Suffice it to say, he made good on the vow you’ll hear at the end of this clip.

It made me think a lot about what Shannon and I are trying to do with these stories: what we’re trying to learn, what we’re trying to give. What do you make of your second chances? Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul is just out now in paperback from Picador Books.

Follow Andrew Schulman on Twitter at @andrewschulman and learn more about him and his growing movement of medical musicians.