Phoenix hospital helps woman use beatboxing to recover from brain tumor surgery

PHOENIX - If anyone marches to the beat of her own drum, literally, it's Lexy Greenwell.

Just last year, the 20-year-old singer and beat boxer from Aurora was fighting to hit the big time, performing live, selling music on iTunes and even auditioning for a network music show.

On the verge of her big break, Greenwell's drumbeat suddenly stopped.

"I was having headaches, and I started slurring my words," said Greenwell. "I just thought I was tired."

In a matter of weeks, Greenwell's health dramatically deteriorated as she experienced double vision, dizziness and facial paralysis. She was confined to a wheelchair.

A MRI revealed a rare tumor in her brain, in the worst possible location.

"This structure right here, that's the brain stem. Very small. That's where her tumor was," said Dr. Robert Spetzler, a neurosurgeon with Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, while pointing at the the base of a model skull. "It's very hard to reach and it's the part of the brain that sends and receives signals for the rest of the body."

Spetzler said Greenwell was diagnosed with a "cavernous malformation," a benign tumor made of blood vessels, on her brain stem.

When it hemorrhaged, it left her able to think, but unable to communicate those thoughts.

"I felt as though I was trapped inside my own body," said Greenwell. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't see. I started losing my hearing. When you're going through such a downward spiral, you don't know how much longer you have."

Lexy's new fight would be for her life.

She went to the at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, one of the only places she could find surgeons willing to perform a risky procedure to remove the tumor. She documented her arrival there in a video on her YouTube channel covering a song by the Gym Class Heroes.

"If we didn't take the risk. I would be dead," said Greenwell. "For a long time, I sort of was wondering 'Why me?' But after a while, I knew the answer to that question was because I was strong enough."

She was indeed strong enough to survive the successful surgery, but recovery would put that strength to the test once again.

She went through intense physical therapy to re-learn how to walk at Craig Hospital in Englewood.

"She's just amazing to work with because she works so hard," said Kate Smulligan, her physical therapist at Craig Hospital.

Greenwell also had to re-learn to talk, and it turned out that speech therapy sounded really familiar.

"The speech therapy exercises used some of the same sounds that beat boxing uses," said Greenwell. "Those exercises actually helped bring back to life the muscles that were paralyzed in my face."

Letters difficult for her to pronounce, such as b and t, beat boxing forced her to practice.

She also practiced piano and drums, feeling her body come back to life.

In less than a year, Greenwell has made an almost total recovery, although she is temporarily wearing a bedazzled eye patch until a final surgery to correct double vision.

Her doctors told 7NEWS reporter Jaclyn Allen that with this type of brain surgery, music can be an integral part of recovery, from speech therapy to gross and fine motor skills.

It makes sense Greenwell's march to recovery would be to the beat of her own drum. She puts it simply, telling everyone that music healed her.

"I think the biggest thing music has helped me with is just rebuilding myself from both the inside and the outside," she said. "Knowing that I was able to pull from within to overcome something that people said I wasn't going to overcome. What more could I ask for? How lucky am I?"

Greenwell hopes to go back to college in the fall. She is majoring in computer science and plans to make music software, possibly even something that allows people to do rehab like she has done via computers.

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