Can a concert save your life? For one Brookline woman, it may have
BROOKLINE — Going to a recent classical music concert may have saved an elderly Brookline woman’s life.
It was a Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and the local chamber music ensemble Mistral was in the middle of a concert titled “The Walk to the Paradise Garden.”
They had performed works by Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar. Then Ingrid Christiansen, 89, went into cardiac arrest.
Mistral cofounder and artistic director Julie Scolnik, who plays flute in the ensemble, recounted the dramatic events of Nov. 11 in a recent interview at her Brookline home.
Scolnik had raised her flute to lead the program’s third piece, Vaughan Williams’s “Phantasy Quintet,” when her husband, Mistral cofounder and physicist Michael Brower, tapped her on the shoulder. Hold the music, he urged her. In her front-row seat, Christiansen had fallen unconscious and was slumped over on another patron, who caught Brower’s attention. Brower, who had been serving as stage manager, called out to ask the audience if anyone with medical training was present.
Four doctors seated nearby hurried to examine her. One of them, emergency physician Anne Stack, recounted what happened next.
Christiansen was already blue, without a pulse or respiration, Stack recalled via phone. “We laid her on the floor and asked for 911 to be called, and [a defibrillator], and began CPR,” Stack said. The four physicians, all women, surrounded Christiansen. Stack monitored her for a heartbeat while another doctor started chest compressions, the third performed rescue breaths, and the fourth, the last to arrive, monitored another pulse point.
After two minutes of CPR, Stack felt a strong pulse. Shortly afterward, Christiansen started gasping and moving, and she opened her eyes.
“When she came to, I think the first thing she said was, ‘What are you doing?’ ” said Stack, who asked Christiansen if she had any medical conditions. Christiansen replied that she had a pacemaker.
“I made the assumption that her pacemaker was malfunctioning, and it finally kicked in, and she had that nice strong pulse thereafter,” Stack said.
An ambulance arrived quickly to transport a reluctant Christiansen to the hospital.
“For two minutes or so she kept saying, ‘But I don’t want to go to the hospital! . . . I just want to stay at the concert! I just want to hear the music!’ ” Scolnik said.
Brower accompanied Christiansen in the ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the next day Scolnik brought her flute to Christiansen’s hospital bedside, where she played a Bach partita for her, her hospital roommate, and the nurses on duty.
Christiansen, who lives alone in Brookline, doesn’t remember much about her ordeal. A lifelong music lover and former pianist, she’s been a season subscriber to Mistral for a few years, learning about the group after seeing its posters around Coolidge Corner. She loves Mistral concerts, she explained by phone from her home, because of “the unusual music they play, and their leader . . . does a lot of research before she decides on the program.”
Of the concert program Nov. 11, she recalls little — “only that I liked it,” she said simply.
Christiansen is feeling much improved, she said. She has gone to exercise at the YMCA, and she attended a screening of the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Magic Flute” at a movie theater.
On Sunday, she also made it to Mistral’s holiday Baroque concert at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, a reunion she’d looked forward to. Scolnik announced her presence before the music started, and she gave the audience a little wave from her seat.
After Christiansen was taken to the hospital last month, Scolnik said, she explained to the audience what had transpired, and the concert continued.
“My audience knows me really, really well, and one of the things that people come to the concerts for is the rapport,” Scolnik said. “It was just another way in which I spoke to them about something very serious that had just happened.”
According to Scolnik, audience members told her afterward that the concert “was something they’d never forget.” There were jokes, she said, that “the music must have been heartstoppingly beautiful.” But more important was the idea “that had she stayed home that night, she would have died.”
Instead, she was surrounded by people, and the music she cherished.
“I think everybody felt . . . it was an amazingly beautiful stroke of luck that she had chosen to go, at her age, to a concert in a taxi that night, because she very well could have had a heart attack at home and died,” Scolnik said.
“It was a beautiful happenstance, where, thanks to her loving Mistral, somebody saved her life.”