We love to talk abstractly about the healing power of music, as if it contains some supernatural powers that science could never explain. Certainly few other things can change the mood and improve your outlook on life than music, and without the downstream effects of other alternatives. But can it really save a life?
On July 17, 1997, 46-year-old Debra Diehl was driving her pickup truck on the Pyramid Highway north of Reno, Nevada when the truck went off the roadway and overturned, throwing her 7-year-old daughter Tamra Diehl from the truck. Tamra suffered severe head injuries in the accident and was taken to Washoe Medical Center, where she fell into a coma. The mother was initially charged with drunk driving, which she pleaded not guilty to in a first trial.
Young Tamra Diehl lay in a coma in the hospital for three weeks and showed no sign of life. Doctors feared she might never recover. Profiles and news about Tamra engaged the local community in Reno and beyond, with people concerned about Tamra and assuming that the mother might have caused the tragedy because she was under the influence.
Tamra’s favorite singer happened to be LeAnn Rimes, and her favorite song was “Blue,” which had been released the year before. Written and originally recorded by songwriter and longtime DJ Bill Mack in 1958 when LeAnn Rimes recorded the song, it sounded like the second coming of Patsy Cline. LeAnn’s “Blue” rekindled the appeal of folks in classic country, and although it only peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Country Songs chart, it won both the 1996 CMA and ACM Song of the Year, as well as the Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. And that’s not all.
While playing a show in Reno, 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes got wind of what had happened to Tamra Diehl and that she was the young girl’s favorite singer and that “Blue” was her favorite song. Rimes decided to pay her a visit on August 6, 1997 – 25 years ago today. LeAnn Rimes knelt beside Tamra’s hospital bed, where she still lay in a coma, and sang an a cappella version of “Blue,” and personal accounts have reported that the young girl in her bed stirred and her eyelids began to flutter .
According to Tamra’s mother, these were the first signs of life Tamra had shown since the accident, and it was the moment the little girl began to awaken from her coma. On August 20, Tamra was awake, alert, and smiling. The young girl didn’t remember LeAnn Rimes singing to her, but she was excited to hear about it after it happened.
“She gets a big smile on her face. She laughs and everything” said her mother Debra Diehl at the time. “Since the day LeAnn Rimes came here, she started coming out of the coma. We are very grateful to her.”
It could have been a coincidence, but it’s a coincidence that has happened many times with music, and with those who have suffered from strokes or comas. A 7-year-old British girl had a similar experience in 2012 after being shown Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. Consider it a miracle, but there is actually science behind this phenomenon as well, and it’s similar to why sometimes those who stutter or lose their ability to speak can still sing.
The left hemisphere controls language, while the right hemisphere processes song and music. So even if one side is damaged or recovering, the other side can still function. In addition, a stimulus such as a person’s favorite song may have a greater effect than other stimuli in patients with brain trauma.
“Whenever memories have an emotional context, they tend to have a lot more power in the brain and tend to be processed differently.” says the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s neurological intensive care unit, Dr. Javier Provencio.
Maybe 7-year-old Tamra Diehl would have woken up on her own at some point. Maybe she never would have done that. But the story speaks to both the physical and spiritual power of music, and LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” in particular.
Later that year, Tamra Diehl mostly recovered, her mother Debra came in and pleaded guilty to drunk driving and causing the accident.