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11-year-old Minnesota pianist recovers from brain hemorrhage

October 15, 2018

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Don’t underestimate Eliana Szabo.

While lying in a bed last winter at Mayo Clinic in Rochester — unable to speak or walk — the gifted pianist communicated with her parents by pointing to letters on a piece of paper.

At first, her sight was strained. Her parents got odd, incoherent answers to simple questions.

“I don’t know why, but one day I felt things looked better and I tried it again,” said Erin Szabo, Eliana Szabo’s mother. “That’s when she said, ‘I feel like the doctors are underestimating me’ and she said, ‘I’m sick ... and tired of people being so treacle.’”

Erin Szabo and her husband, Mark Szabo, looked at each other, perplexed.

“I had to revisit the dictionary,” Mark Szabo told the St. Cloud Times .

“He got out his phone and typed in ‘treacle’ and that means overly sweet or saccharine,” Erin Szabo said.

That’s a pretty big word for a 10-year-old. But Eliana Szabo’s parents expect big things from her — even with recent setbacks.

Last Thanksgiving, Eliana Szabo suffered a brain hemorrhage when an arteriovenous malformation ruptured. It took her a few days to open her eyes after life-saving surgery. She was in the intensive care unit for 17 days at Mayo and spent 87 nights in in-patient care there.

Now 11, Eliana Szabo has relearned how to walk and talk. She lives at home in Avon and attends physical therapy and occupational therapy four days a week. And she’s undergoing lessons to regain strength in her voice.

Meanwhile, a fellow pianist is trying to raise $10,000 through selling handmade paper cranes.

Eliana Szabo’s biggest task is regaining her motor functions so she can get back to playing the piano at the level she did before the hemorrhage.

“To another pianist, who is maybe way advanced, they would hear her play and think she is very musical but she’s not terribly advanced,” said Paul Wirth, artistic director at Wirth Center for the Performing Arts in St. Cloud. “Well, to a doctor or a (physical therapist), she’s a rock star. To come this far, to be able to do that ... in just a year is miraculous.”

While at the Wirth Center on Sept. 20, Eliana Szabo played bits of songs from memory while a small group of people watched and listened. Wirth — who has instructed Eliana Szabo since she was 5 — said her fingers are progressing more quickly than her upper limbs, so if her fingers are already on the keys, she finds more success than if she has to move her arms across the piano.

The recovery process is frustrating.

“It’s all in her brain,” Erin Szabo said. “She has what they call absolute pitch. She hears notes in dishwashers, fans, Mayo Hospital equipment — which drove her crazy — and in her brain, it’s there. So it’s really frustrating for her because she knows what she could play but, especially her left hand, won’t allow her to do it right now.”

But Eliana Szabo is tenacious, Wirth said.

She also has the support of hundreds of people, including 16-year-old Cecilia Maus-Conn, a junior at St. John’s Preparatory School.

Eliana Szabo and Maus-Conn met at the Wirth Center, where they both take piano lessons.

“She was young. She couldn’t even reach the pedals,” Maus-Conn said of the first time they met.

The two became friends when they roomed together two years ago at the Young Artists World Piano Festival at Bethel University.

Last year, Eliana Szabo dazzled the audience at the event by performing a Mozart piece under the direction of Marlene Pauley of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“It’s just incredible,” Maus-Conn said of Eliana Szabo’s talent. “It’s beyond words because not only does she have incredible technique, but she feels the music so much more than every other pianist I’ve ever seen.”

After Eliana Szabo was hospitalized, Maus-Conn wanted to find a way to help her friend. She recalled a story she had read in third grade, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.”

“I just thought of the cranes. I don’t know why,” Maus-Conn said. “It just came back to me because I love origami.”

The story is about Sadako Sasaki, who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing by the U.S. She developed leukemia from the radiation when she was 12.

In the story, Sadako begins folding origami paper cranes, inspired by the Japanese legend that a person would be granted a wish if they create 1,000 paper cranes. Her wish was to live. She died that year.

In 1958, a statue of Sadako was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

“On peace day, thousands of people bring thousands of cranes, and their wish is for world peace,” Maus-Conn said. “And so our wish is to help Eliana.”

In February, Cecilia started folding cranes for Eliana and set up a nonprofit.

She “sells” the cranes for $10 each. Instead of keeping the crane they purchased, people sign their name on the crane. Once Maus-Conn sells 1,000 cranes — raising $10,000 — she will give the cranes to Eliana Szabo and her family.

So far, she’s sold about 700 cranes. The monetary donation will help with medical bills. The cranes will represent how many people are pulling for Eliana Szabo.

“I think it’s important to show support because she’s been working so hard and I think it’s important for her to see how many people are rooting for her,” Maus-Conn said.

While looking at a trunk full of colorful paper cranes, Eliana Szabo said she thought the cranes were beautiful.

“It’s amazing how people can be so generous and show so much support,” she said. “It’s just awesome.”

When asked by a Times reporter what her one wish might be, Eliana Szabo asked for clarification — is the question referring to a wish to be healthy or a wish for anything she desires? Either, the reporter said.

“I think I just wish that maybe nothing would ever be hard again for anyone,” Eliana Szabo said. “I wouldn’t wish so much for myself. I wish for world peace.”

Eliana Szabo hopes to continue improving at playing the piano. When she grows up, she wants to be an inventor or pianist, or both. Or maybe a secret agent. She dreams of performing at the Palace of Versailles in Paris.

She also just hopes to show the doctors and nurses that despite her brain hemorrhage and related setbacks, “I’m the same Eliana that I’ve always been.”

Eliana Szabo started taking music classes at the Wirth Center when she was 2 years old. At 5, she started piano lessons.

“We were at a preschool program and a teacher heard her humming while she played ... and said, ‘Do you have her in music somewhere?’ And I said no. And she said, ‘Well, you need to,’” Erin Szabo said. “She’d hum herself to sleep each night — completely on key — even before she was speaking.”

Mark Szabo said his daughter has a natural connection with music that he isn’t sure can be taught.

“She has an understanding. She’s in touch with the pieces she plays,” he said.

Before her brain hemorrhage, Eliana Szabo had played with master classes and was hired by local businesses to perform at parties.

“She’s got a big following here. People love her here,” said Wirth, who has been teaching piano for about 50 years.

Wirth said he is planning a benefit concert on Dec. 8.

In the meantime, the family is taking it day by day, Mark Szabo said.

“It’s just lots of repetition. I think the piano is therapy for itself,” he said. ”(There’s) lots of anxiety because the recovery is an incredibly slow process. Some days she just doesn’t look like she’s recovering. If affects you. But then there are very good days too. You notice progress and it just kind of keeps you going.”

Because her parents and Wirth know never to underestimate Eliana Szabo.

“She’s been working extremely hard since (her hospitalization) to achieve her dream of someday being a concert pianist,” Wirth said. “And she is making progress.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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