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Halifax musician experiences the healing power of music

Mimisu Lee overcame significant challenges at a very young age through her determination, hard work and the love of her parents. Today she is a walking, talking, French Horn-playing miracle. ERIC WYNNE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
Mimisu Lee overcame significant challenges at a very young age through her determination, hard work and the love of her parents. Today she is a walking, talking, French Horn-playing miracle. ERIC WYNNE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

f anybody doubts the healing power of music, they should ask the Lee family what they think. About 20 years ago, Anita Gao Lee and her husband, Yi Lee, had a schedule that nobody with children would envy. Mimisu, one of the Halifax musicians’ two daughters, was being treated intensively for a brain tumour.

“We remember every morning,” said Yi during an interview at the Nova Scotia Cancer Centre at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre complex in Halifax.

“Seven o’clock every morning, for six weeks, in that room,” Anita said, referring to the radiation therapy suite.

“She was diagnosed at 19 months, and the first thing is surgery.”

Fifteen months of chemotherapy followed.

“By the time she was three, they found out she had a relapse,” said Anita.

Following a plan devised by oncologist Dr. RobRutledge, Mimisu has apparently overcome all those obstacles. The fourthyear Dalhousie University student is already an accomplished musician, poised for a bright future in the arts world.

The Lees will vouch specifically for the soothing power of the Brahms Lullaby, but music in general was key to their family’s medical experience.

“It was always very important. We would always be practising at home or play recordings,” Yi said. “That’s how music can heal,” said Anita. “I think music is not only for healthy people. For people who are not healthy, it’s more important because they can relate to all the emotion and the hope.”

Yi suggested music helps brain development for anybody, triggering neurons to respond to challenges in different ways.

On Feb. 24 and 25 that mindset will be represented on stage in The Journey. Mimisu and Rutledge, along with members of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra, music director Dinuk Wijeratneand dancers from the Conservatory School of Dance, will participate in the multimedia production depicting the phases people can go through when facing lifethreatening illness. Proceeds will go to the orchestra (novascotiayouthorchestra. com) and the Healing for Cancer Foundation (healingandcancer.org).

“It’s a concept that Rob and some other peoplecame up with that’s basically about talking about the different steps of when someone gets diagnosed with cancer or another sort of illness and how you go through the different stages,” said Mimisu, who plays the French horn.

“There’s shattered, then going into the darkness, acceptance, transformation and transcendence,” Rutledge said.

“It’s the hero’s journey, essentially, and each section of the concert has dance and stories and amazing orchestral music.”

Beethoven, Fauré, Brahms, Piazzola and Schubert will be featured composers, and there will also be some Leonard Cohen, Rutledge said.

“You’re working with a fantastic symphony and trying to create an experience that goes beyond symphony music so you’re kind of facilitating the two sides, and I think this is unique.”

Perhaps intuitively, the Lees were sensitive to a link between music and Mimisu’s well-being. Anita and Yi, both violinists with Symphony Nova Scotia, encouraged their young daughter 

through the treatments to take up piano, challenging her to develop her co-ordination.

“As an oncologist, as a physician, kind of watching these little kids, I’m seeing Mimisu every three or four months for the first few years, and I’m seeing the parents taking care of this child and facilitating this healing and at the same time pushing her to do music, and I didn’t understand it at that time,” Rutledge said.

“But now as a scientist really interested in healing and how the brain works, I realize that that’s it, all the practice actually was growing the brain circuitry. I wouldn’t have said that three years ago.

“That’s the miracle. People usually don’t end up like this incredible, functioning, lovely person because they don’t necessarily work as hard as she worked.”

The doctor said knowledge of the brain and how it functions has doubled in the last 10 years, but there is a long way to go.

“We’re only now, in the scientific realm, able to say this is why Mimisu has done well, and it’s her grit and spirit that got her here. That’s the takeaway message.”

Health professionals are understandably circumspect about describing someone as cured.

“Usually we have to wait for a long time before we use that word,” said Rutledge. “But I’m saying it now.”

Mimisu is in her sixth season playing with the youth orchestra, and she’s auditioning for music schools in Toronto and Philadelphia to get an artist diploma after completing her music performance degree at Dalhousie.

“Twenty-some years ago was overwhelming,” Anita said. “‘There’s no miracle.’ Then, I never thought about today. Today, anybody who has to go in that room, there is a miracle. It’s different.”

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