Ian Hesford always wanted
to bring a shamanic presence to the live performances of his tribal jam band, Telesma. Donning full body paint and equipped with a myriad of exotic instruments, he tried to reach “the edge of regular consciousness.”
On April 20, just minutes into the beginning of their set during a performance at Rams Head Live!, Hesford collapsed onstage while playing drums as a result of a sudden and massive heart attack.
“My first thought was that he had fainted and that he would be getting up in a second,” Telesma’s guitarist Chris Mandra explains. “But when I realized he wasn’t stirring, I thought he must have gotten hit with a bottle or something. Of all the possible things I could have thought, a heart attack was the last on my mind.”
Chris wasn’t the only one confused by the scene. Many onlookers couldn’t tell whether what they were seeing was real or just part of an act. It wasn’t until people began to jump onstage, shouting that something was wrong, that the true gravity of the situation became apparent.
Tom Swiss and Sarah Saccoccio, a registered nurse, almost immediately administered CPR to Hesford. Adding to the surreal nature of the situation was Swiss’ oversized top hat and Saccoccio’s face, which was painted like a Mexican death skull.
“It’s crazy to think that as I was lying lifeless on the stage a representation of death was over me, fighting to keep me alive,” Hesford says.
Ninety minutes elapsed between the time of Hesford’s heart stopping and the moment when the doctors and nurses at Mercy Medical Center were finally able to stabilize his pulse. Hesford and his bandmates like to joke that, in the time when he was dead to the world, he was actually out exploring the cosmos, and it wasn’t until he saw that they were about to give up on trying to save him that he realized he needed to come back to his body.
“It’s pretty rare that someone comes back from being unresponsive for that long,” explains Dr. Joseph Costa, who was on staff the night Hesford was admitted to Mercy. “The biggest concern with a case like his was that we would get his heart function back but no brain function.”
But thanks to a process called Hypothermic Protocol—a method of cooling the body to prevent brain damage—the Mercy Medical staff was able to preserve his brain function with only minimal memory loss.
“I don’t remember anything from the week leading up to the show,” Hesford says. “To me, it was like I went to sleep, and when I woke up, I was surrounded by people showering me with love.”
While Hesford lay comatose in a hospital bed, surrounded by far more friends and loved ones than normal visitation rules would allow, Telesma’s web sites and Twitter account were flooded with messages of love and support from around the world. Dozens of prayer circles were held for him in places as far away as Ireland. Hesford’s family was astonished: They had always believed Ian was special, but up until that point hadn’t realized the impact he’d made on others.
The staff at Mercy also took a special interest in Hesford. When harpist and certified music practitioner Sandra Lumpkin was told by a nurse that there was a musician who had suffered a heart attack, she was ready to help. When she walked into the hospital room, a young woman saw her, took Hesford’s hand, and said, “There is a musician here to play harp for you. I think you are going to really like this.”
Lumpkin then positioned her harp closely so that the vibrations of the instrument could resonate through the floor, up the hospital bed, and into Ian. “Almost as soon as I started playing the tears began to flow in the room,” Lumpkin recalls.
Though the music seemed to help his vitals, it took Hesford the better part of a week to regain conscousness. Slowly, he learned to talk, eat, and walk again—ultimately hoping to return to the stage.
The long recovery has given Hesford, who used to fall into states of depression and what he calls “illusions of loneliness,” a chance to reflect on life and death.
“I think I was supremely blessed to go through this experience and survive it,” Hesford says. “If there is an afterlife, and I think there is, I imagine our bodies will die and our souls will hover over everyone at our funeral, and only then will we actually see how many people truly cared for us. Oftentimes it’s too late, because you’re already dead, and I feel like going through this experience—the best part to take from it is to realize that I truly am not alone.”