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Music changed life for amputee

Wednesday May 30, 2012

Randy Beamer

WOAI.Com - Kevin Higgins lost part of a leg in a motorcycle accident 15 years ago. But it was music that changed the course of his life.

Now he's won the prestigious Jefferson Award for using music to help others.

When you have this opportunity to help somebody and make a change, no matter how small it is in the world, that's a great feeling," says Higgins. "That's the greatest feeling in the world."

But for Higgins that greatest feeling would only come after the worst pain.

Today he's playing beautiful music (which he composed) at Alamo Music in downtown San Antonio, where he sells pianos.

But 15 years ago Higgins was a technology company salesman in Houston when a motorcycle accident took part of his left leg. The accident changed his life.

"Because of the type of traumatic amputation that I had, I had some resulting nerve damage called phantom pain. And so I was still working full time and living my life, but I was experiencing a lot of intense agony."

"And I tried taking medications. I had several surgeries. I had the pain all the time, I had trouble, a lot of trouble sleeping."

But finally things changed.

"One day I wandered into a piano store and I started playing the piano. I couldn't feel the phantom pain! So what I did was I started playing the piano every day as much as I could. So it made a whole lot of sense for me to switch industries so I could be where the pianos were at."

"That's how I discovered the healing power of music."

Since then he's learned more about the science behind music's power; how actively playing music helps re-wire the brain.

"It engages both sides of the brain and it forms new neuropathways around those damaged pathways. So we're starting to see that type of thing like with [former Arizona Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords, where she credits being able to speak now with music therapy."

"So I think we're just barely scratching the surface of what music can do for us from a medical standpoint."

When Higgins moved to San Antonio from Houston a few years ago, he noticed the big population of wounded warriors recovering here.

"I thought well these guys are suffering the same types of amputations and traumatic injuries as I have. So it just seemed like common sense that we could help them."

At the Soldier's Angels support center across Interstate 35 from Fort Sam Houston, Higgins helped set up part of a music therapy program which is now called Operation Harmony.

Within the past few months, he started helping people with Parkinson's Disease, using the same music technology. It's Yahama's "Clavinova Connection" which links keyboards together into a network.

Diane Johnson is a nurse who also works with the American Parkinson's Disease Association.

"When the [piano] key lights up for me, it lights up for the students," Johnson says. "Then they follow those lights, so there's no music ability that they need to have whatsoever before they come into the class."

"Three of the students have tremors, but as they continue to play the music they become more relaxed, their neuropathways are taking a different direction and the tremors start to subside."

I ask one of the people in the class at the Franklin Park Senior Center whether it's helping.

"Yes! A million times over," she says. "I didn't know what was going to happen and to have it [tremors] go away for a little bit, it's just great."

The project using music to help these Parkingson's patients actually started out with a chance meeting.

Higgins happened to be called out to do an insurance appraisal on Diane Johnson's piano.

"We started talking about how music alleviates and helps with the pain," Johnson remembers. "And I thought, well if it works for pain, then maybe it would work for people with Parkinson's."

"So we got together we got a grant from the Rapier Foundation and started the program. And so we're finding now over the last several weeks that the benefit of the music class actually feeds into the rest of [the patient's] day for a couple of hours."

That's the same kind of cumulative benefit of music which has changed Kevin Higgins' life. And through him, it's also changing the lives of many around him.

"He's just a super guy," says Johnson. "And all of us are just thrilled to have him in our lives."

Higgins says he's thankful for the opportunity. "For God to take something that's a personal tragedy and turn it into a victory that can help people...it's just amazing."

"I think about that all the time. What if I hadn't just wandered in wandered into the piano store? And if I had never done that, where would I be at now?"

"I think this is one of those things where God gave me the secret desire of my heart - which is to make a difference in the community.

Higgins is doing that in even more ways. He's set up a car show/fundraiser for the wounded warriors and a series of live music performances where musicians come into Alamo Music for mini-concerts for injured veterans.

For all of that hard work, selfless dedication, and inspiration, Kevin Higgins was nominated and chosen for the Jefferson Award.

Congratulations and thank you Kevin! Keep it up!