When he was 26, fate pulled the rug out from under Ron Price. But 40 years later, his trauma has turned to triumph.
A fourth-generation musician, Price was on the cusp of reaching his lifelong goal of playing for a symphony orchestra when doctors delivered the shocking news: Not only was his career over, but, in all likelihood, so was life as he knew it. The spasms that were wrenching his neck and left hand were symptoms of cerebral palsy, a condition that would only intensify and spread to other parts of his body.
"A multitude of things go through your head when you learn you have cerebral palsy," he said. "Here I was, 26, just ready to take on the world and they said, 'You have to stop.' It's a degenerative disease. I was going to have to relearn everything; eventually I was going to have to learn how to walk all over again."
He might have to give up playing, but, he vowed, he'd never abandon music entirely. He'd teach.
"You have to confront the challenges that life puts in front of you," he said. "Occasionally I have doors slammed in my face, but I keep knocking on the next door. You can't give up."
Price, who describes himself as "68 going on 18," went back to college to get a degree in special education. "I wanted to help people like me. These youngsters need success. They need to be reminded that they are valuable."
He was working with a group of kids with attention-deficit issues when he came up with the idea of teaching them to play the harp. It was a practical, more than a musical decision.
"The harp is a confining instrument," he said. "Once the kids got the harp in position, it held them there. They weren't going anywhere."
When he started giving the lessons, an amazing thing happened: The longer he played, the better he felt. After 20 minutes, the head tremors disappeared. After an hour, he had regained almost complete control of the left side of his body.
Fascinated by the discovery, he went back to school again, emerging with a master's degree in early childhood education that included a minor in neuro-linguistics, the study of the brain's neural mechanisms, and a doctorate in special education.
He launched a nonprofit program called Healing Harps. He and his wife, Carol, bought a large, old house in Bishop Hill, Ill., a small town that had served as communal village for Swedish immigrants in the mid-1800s. They opened the doors to anyone who wanted to study with them.
"We had physicians, neurologists, psychologists, nurses and special-education teachers," he said.
Backed by science
Modern imaging technologies reveal that when an area of the brain concentrates on a task, extra oxygen-rich blood is sent there. In addition, therapists working with patients suffering from brain injuries and other cognitive problems have discovered "patterning," a treatment method that involves teaching a set of specific movements that imprint themselves on the central nervous system. Some believe that patterning works better with a sensory stimulation. Price is convinced that the harp is an ideal tool for this because it both provides sound and produces vibrations that the player can feel through the instrument as it rests on his shoulder.
Price's theories were met with incredulity in some circles. Not that he cared. All that mattered to him is that he saw results among cancer patients, brain-injury victims and the learning-disabled.
"Did they become great harp players? No," he said. "But did they benefit from it? Yes! We couldn't always explain it, but we could observe the effect it was having on people."
No one knows for sure how many people benefited from training from Healing Harps over 35 years. For one thing, record-keeping wasn't their strong suit, but it goes well beyond that. Every graduate was sent out into the musical world to share the healing.
"Today many of them are playing in hospitals, with the elderly, in churches, synagogues and temples, with shut-ins, the incarcerated, the homeless, the abused, with the dying and the very young," he said.
More bad news
In 2004, Carol died. A year ago, fate pulled the rug out from under Price again. He developed lupus, and complications from treatment for it resulted in an infection that left his right hand partially crippled. He had to give up the Healing Harps program.
His oldest daughter, Jennifer Thomas -- who, by the way, is a fifth-generation musician who is part of the Northern Lights String Quartet and director of Crown College's orchestra -- insisted that he move closer to her in the Twin Cities.
She found him a spot in St. Therese Southwest, an assisted-living center in Hopkins that operates under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church.
"I need to be in a place where mass is celebrated every day," he said. "I'm so thankful for this place."
He has refused to play the harp since his hand became crippled. He can strum the strings, but he can't hold his hand in the proper position to pluck them -- which, for someone who has spent his life teaching technique, is unacceptable.
Nonetheless, one of the few possessions he brought with him to Minnesota is a harp. It sits in the corner of his small living room, right next to the TV set. He tries to pretend that he never touches it, but when a pair of visitors finally talked him into letting them hear it, he ran his fingers down the strings to reveal that they were perfectly tuned.
It was not until he was in his mid-40s that he discovered that his parents had known about the cerebral palsy since his birth but were too afraid -- or too embarrassed -- to tell him.
"In those days, it was common for a family that had a child with disabilities for the parents to believe that they were being punished for something," he said. "My father never forgave himself. We realize now that accidents happen in nature, and they are no one's fault. Isn't it good that we've changed that attitude?"
He has never felt sorry for himself. "I have an incredible sense of humor, and some of this is laughable," he said of his medical history.
Even now, facing yet another discouraging prognosis, he cracks jokes.
"I don't know if I'll get the use of my right hand back or not," he said. "I might have to give up the harp. But I'm thinking of becoming a plumber."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392