Singing After Stroke: How Opera Singer Eric Jordan Overcame the Odds
Advocacy When Metropolitan Opera singer Eric Jordan had a stroke, his family didn’t think he’d speak again, but a cutting-edge device and singing itself helped him recover.
When 45-year-old Eric Jordan woke up one early-fall evening in 2012 to tend to his crying newborn son, he didn’t know the effort would end up saving his life. Jordan, a bassist for the Metropolitan (MET) Opera in New York City, later returned to bed next to his wife, Christina, who ended up calling 911 after Jordan began acting strange—not even responding to slaps across his face meant to help Jordan come to. At New York-Presbyterian Hospital, doctors confirmed his diagnosis: Jordan underwent a stroke.
“When I heard stroke, my will to be positive started to crumble a little,” Christina Jordan recalled. “[I told the doctors], please make sure you do everything you can to make sure he sings again.”
Except for being under a large deal of stress while training for two different opera performances prior to stroke, Jordan was healthy and showed no traditional warning signs of stroke. Those signs consist of abnormalities in facial expression, arm weakness and slurred speech, according to the American Stroke Association (ASA).
The ASA predicts that every 40 seconds an American has a stroke, and that the condition kills more than 137,000 people every year in the United States—making it a leading cause of death in the country. Every four minutes, an American dies of stroke.
“When I took that stage I was very scared but happy and thankful—all the emotions that you could possibly think or feel, I had them and then some.”
When Jordan was admitted to the hospital, doctors administered the first-line medication for stroke, IV-ppa, but Jordan didn’t respond. Dr. Daniel Sahlein, an interventional neuroradiologist at New York-Presbyterian, next performed a stent thrombectomy—the procedure that ended up salvaging Jordan’s brain function. For the operation, Sahlein implanted the mechanical device Solitaire™ via a catheter into the artery of Jordan’s leg, whereby a fishnet-like traction removed the clot from the brain to restore blood flow.
“The clot in his brain was in the left middle cerebral artery, which controls right sided motor as well as receptive language—understanding speech—and expressive language,” Sahlein said in a news release after the operation. “Eric made a remarkable recovery in movement and understanding language. He was left with an expressive aphasia, or difficulty making speech.”
When Jordan underwent the stent thrombectomy, the procedure wasn’t an official recommendation under guidelines by the ASA or the American Heart Association (AHA). But a wealth of research published over the past decade that has illustrated the operation’s ability to save lives like Jordan’s has now compelled the agencies to add it as a first-line treatment.
Today, Jordan still suffers from aphasia, but to his doctors’ surprise, he was able to return to the stage at the MET within six weeks—surpassing his family’s goal of six months.
Not only did singing post-stroke help ward off depression and overeating, common habits recovering patients pick up, but it also helped him regain speech itself. Because Jordan’s stroke occurred on the left side of his brain, the part of the organ that controls speaking and fine-motor skills, his language became impaired. The right side of the brain, however, was unaffected by stroke, so Jordan could sing even immediately after his operation. To train to return to work, Jordan and Christina, a part-time opera singer, as well as their son, Gabriel, would sing together.
“When I took that stage I was very scared but happy and thankful—all the emotions that you could possibly think or feel, I had them and then some,” Jordan recalled, referring to his first night back at the MET.
In addition to performing opera around the world in Italian, German, Spanish and English, Jordan has traveled to over a dozen medical centers, schools and the like each year since his stroke to educate other people about stroke and ensure other people know the classic stroke warning signs. His aim is to promote others to feel comfortable around stroke patients like him who may still suffer from stuttering as a side effect, and to raise awareness.
“To perform for my friends and family is a gift,” Jordan said of his craft, “and I’m so happy I could do this because my friends, family are why I’m here.”