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Violinist Runs Toward New Goals After Brain Surgery

Roger Frisch had two electrodes implanted into his brain to combat a condition that caused tremors.

Roger Frisch had two electrodes implanted into his brain to combat a condition that caused tremors.

For 63-year-old Roger Frisch, hitting the start line at the Medtronic Twin Cities 10 Mile on Oct. 5 marks a special occasion. His first big race since a major health scare and subsequent brain surgery nearly four years ago, this veteran runner knows a little something about comebacks.

A professional violinist and Associate Concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra, Frisch’s upbringing didn’t involve sports—but it wasn’t unlike that of a budding elite athlete, either. After a childhood largely dominated by his musical training, the young violinist invested most of his energies into preparing for a top-level orchestral career.

It wasn’t until he turned 30 when a close friend and neighbor challenged him to give running a try. “He said that he bet I couldn’t even run two miles,” remembered Frisch. “So I started running and nine months later, I ran my first marathon.”

That race was the 1984 Grandma’s Marathon, in which he logged an impressive 3:10 finishing time. He went on to run another marathon, as well as countless shorter races.

“I’m on stage in front of 2,000 people 3-4 times a week, so running became my little escape from the world,” he said. “There is a certain peacefulness that I find in it I think because no one can get ahold of me and for that small moment, I don’t have major responsibilities as far as [my] career and don’t need to feel guilty about not practicing.”

It seemed as if Frisch had struck the perfect work/life balance, offsetting the pressures of his professional music career and traveling around the globe with the joy of running.

Then, in 2009, a slight quiver in his hand proved to threaten both things he was most passionate about.

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After getting off a flight to China and heading to the stage to rehearse with a local orchestra, an unfamiliar noise came from his violin upon drawing his bow.

“Unless the bow arm is absolutely steady, it sounds like you’re very nervous,” he said. “At the time, I just assumed it was from the long plane flight and lack of sleep.”

But the next day, it happened again. Soon there was no denying the sight and sound of the bow jumping across the strings of his violin.

After flying back to the U.S. and making the rounds to every doctor in town, experts at the Mayo Clinic eventually diagnosed him with a condition called Essential Tremor (ET), a movement disorder characterized by uncontrollable shaking. When medication failed to work, Frisch’s neurosurgeon suggested a drastic approach to resolve the issue, known as Deep Brain Stimulation. While this usually involves drilling a single hole into a patient’s skull and inserting an electrode into the brain, Frisch’s doctor wanted to try something completely experimental by drilling a second hole to insert a second electrode.

Frisch agreed, knowing he could very well leave the operating room with two holes in his head and no solution for his ever-worsening tremors.

In order to determine where the electrodes should be placed to steady his hand and eliminate the shaking, Frisch had to be fully conscious during surgery. Making matters more interesting, Mayo Clinic engineers designed a violin for him to play through the operation, complete with a bow outfitted with a 3-axis accelerometer that plotted movement on a computer screen.

As doctors drilled and placed the first lead into his brain, his playing improved, evidenced by the sound coming from his violin and confirmed by the reduced movement on the screen.

Then came the second electrode.

The sound steadied, the plotted points on the computer regulated, and Frisch knew, with a flip of a switch, he could play again.

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Just weeks later, he was able to rejoin the Minnesota Orchestra. His return to running took a little longer as he adjusted to life with a computer in his body that he can simply turn on and off to control his tremors.

“That first concert back that I gave, sitting on stage and knowing that just weeks before my career was in essence over, I knew I had been given a second chance,” he said. “That thought certainly hasn’t left me in these four years since the surgery.”

Indeed, as he toes the line at this year’s Twin Cites 10 Mile, he will celebrate that comeback. Frisch will join 23 other Medtronic Global Heroes on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, all of whom have benefited from the assistance of medical technology to recover from and manage life-altering conditions.

By his side will be his 36-year-old daughter Maria, who plans on running every step of the way with him. As second chances go, Frisch said he takes nothing for granted and when it comes to running, it’s all about the joy of putting one foot in front of the other.

“I live and breathe music and play the violin to be at the top professional level, but running I truly love,” he said. “I could be the slowest runner out there and I don’t care because it’s just about the sheer enjoyment for me.”