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Music soothes the soul and heals the body for these two Middleburg men

Forrest Allen and his music therapist Tom Sweitzer. Times-Mirror/Chantalle Edmunds
Forrest Allen seemed to have it all -- sporty, smart and loved by family and friends in Middleburg. He was doing well in school and had ambitions to become a veterinarian.

But in 2011, Allen's life took an unexpected turn at age 18 during a snowboarding outing. After striking clumps of ice, he fell, and his dive continued into a wooden fence. Allen wasn't wearing a helmet, and he was left unable to speak or walk.

Surgeons were forced to remove part of his skull to ease the pressure on his brain.

While the outlook was bleak, Allen somehow stayed positive.

Over the next five years, Allen would learn how to speak and walk again – something doctors at one point doubted. Year by year, his recovery progressed, and all the while someone was capturing it.

That someone was Susan Koch, filmmaker and executive director of the Middleburg Film Festival.

Koch used a mixture of professional original shots and video footage captured by Allen's parents, Kent Allen and Rae Stone, to highlight the recovery – a journey peppered with setbacks and challenges.

Koch's documentary about Allen's struggle, “Music Got Me Here,” screened for the first time to a sell-out audience at this year's Middleburg Film Fest last weekend. The documentary's official release date is slated for 2018.

Shortly after Allen's accident, the then teenager's parents reached out to Tom Sweitzer, their son's former music teacher who had just completed his master's degree in music therapy.

The film highlights Sweitzer's work with Allen, as he tries different musical techniques, from staging impromptu performances to placing music equipment in Allen's hand, in a bid to get a response from the immobilized Allen.

The movie poster for "Music Got Me Here."

The first breakthrough came when Allen started to move his finger.

Then, around 22 months after the accident, Allen started doing simple actions in time to music. Just before Thanksgiving, he typed on a tablet to Sweitzer: “Help me find my voice.”

Slowly, and at times painstakingly, that's exactly what Sweitzer did. When Allen typed that message, his vocal chords had been inactive for over a year and half.

Sweitzer taught Allen to use his breath to generate small noises or grunts. On Dec. 12, 2012, a milestone. Forrest's first words, “good morning,” were released through the air. It was a beautiful song.

Allen soon progressed to singing sentences and then whole songs.

Sweitzer said once he and Allen found the first few words, they then found 10, then 20. Allen's voice was finding its way.

“Singing is the basis of all talking,” he added.

On Dec. 15, 2013, Allen celebrated his 21st birthday in hospital surrounded by his friends, but he was facing a health scare. After doctors removed part of his skull to ease pressure on his brain, Allen had a prosthetic titanium implant fitted.

On Christmas that year, doctors were forced to operate to remove the prosthetic that had become infected.

With his prosthetic removed, Allen endured serious setbacks, with his swallowing and ability to speak impacted. No prosthetic also meant he had no padding on his head if he were to fall.

Nevertheless, in 2014, three years after his original classmates, Allen graduated from high school.

Shortly thereafter, a difficult but essential decision was made with surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore determined to reshape Allen's skull using bone from elsewhere on his head. The surgery was seen as risky but necessary considering Allen's deterioration since the removal of the prosthetic implant.

The surgery took 15 hours, and there was some question whether Allen would be able to speak at all following the procedure. Although it took a few days, Allen's voice returned.

The Middleburg man's perseverance is captured masterfully in Koch's film, with Allen's mother reflecting how music therapy saved her son's life.

Sweitzer too reflects on the journey. He talks about “a hole” inside himself being filled by the mission to help Allen, a reference to a subplot in the film telling the story of Sweitzer's traumatic upbringing.

Sweitzer speaks earnestly about his father, a schizophrenic and alcoholic.

“My house was filled with screaming,” Sweitzer said.

As a boy, Sweitzer owned a record player that he blasted to drown out the noise in the house, along with an old piano he would use to play over the arguing.

Sweitzer credits music with helping him through his difficult childhood.

Now, he runs a music therapy center in Middleburg called A Place to Be, where Allen can often be found continuing his own recovery and aiding others.

“I'm working here at A Place to Be with others demonstrating the difficulties I have faced with a traumatic brain injury, and how I am healing myself and being more successful in the things I do, ” Allen told the Times-Mirror.

Sweitzer is modest about his own part in Allen's transformation. He also credits speech therapy with helping with Allen's melodic tone and intonation, and he praises the whole team that has worked with Allen.

The recovery is “among some of the most miraculous” transformations ever seen, Sweitzer said.

“Music is vibration, and I think that vibration has the ability to wake up, communicate, and inspire parts of the brain that otherwise might stay dormant,” he says.

From left, Forrest Allen, Susan Koch and Tom Sweitzer. Courtesy Photo/Middleburg Film Festival


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