His heart stopped, but life continues for Telesma musician

Ian Hesford performs at Rams Head Live, in his first concert since he went into cardiac arrest in April.
Ian Hesford performs at Rams Head Live, in his first concert since he went into cardiac arrest in April. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

Ian Hesford, his face and body painted in bold swirls, stretched his arms out toward his bandmates. The six members of Telesma joined hands and lifted their voices, finding the key for the performance. Then they took their places. Hesford headed toward the stack of barrel-shaped drums and long, wooden didgeridoos and soon a tangle of sounds — ethereal, tribal, melodic — rose from the stage.

Men and women in the audience began to sway, lifting their faces — many, like the performers, adorned with designs resembling ancient letters — to the stage. A Telesma show, band members say, is meant to be a spiritual experience in which fragments of mystic writings, ancient rhythms and futuristic tones weave a sound primal and transcendent.

On that April evening at Rams Head Live, among the pulse of drumbeats, throbbing guitar chords and the lead singer's lush tones, there came an unexpected sound: a microphone stand clattering to the ground. Beside it lay Hesford. An elemental rhythm had been stilled: Hesford's heartbeat.

What happened next — the woman dressed as Death who blew life into Hesford's lungs, the paramedics and doctors who shocked his heart long after they would normally have given up, and the friends who gathered in his hospital room to sing him back to life — is a tale as profound as the lyrics to a Telesma song. Despite the jagged scars on his chest, the weeks of recovery and the enormous medical bills, Hesford says, he is grateful for the experience: He has been resurrected.

"It hasn't been an inconvenience. It's been a blessing," said Hesford. "I'm the guy that got a second life."

Finding music

Hesford, 38, grew up in Odenton, the only child of a single mother, and worked in construction after graduating from Arundel Senior High. In his early 20s, he became drawn to the didgeridoo, a traditional instrument of Australian aborigines. He taught himself the breathing technique needed to play the instrument, which produces sounds that call to mind a heavenly choir of frogs. Hesford also learned to drum, to sing from his throat and to play a Philippine bamboo mouth harp called the kubing.

Meanwhile, his interest in music began to converge with his spiritual beliefs. He attended New Age festivals and sought others who believed that music could open the mind to transcendental experiences. Hesford and a friend, Jason Sage, founded Telesma in 2004, and called their style "electro-acoustic psychedelic world dance music." Soon they were touring, hosting "visionary gatherings" and collaborating with well-known psychedelic artist Alex Grey.

"Music touches you in a place behind and below your conscious mind," said Hesford, in earnest and passionate tones. The Charles Village resident speaks with a hint of a Baltimore accent. "It is spiritual in the most basic, fundamental sense."

Hesford's hands move constantly when he speaks, as if playing an invisible instrument. His body is lean and powerful, his muscles shaped by the rigorous way he plays drums.

Doctors are unsure what caused Hesford's heart to cease beating that night. He had no history of heart problems and had no drugs in his system, doctors and nurses who treated him say. Doctors hypothesize that a freak infection caused Hesford's heart to become enlarged, leading to cardiac arrest.

A heart stops

Dressed in a shimmering sari, her face dotted with Hindu symbols, Telesma's lead singer Joanne Juskus was three or four minutes into the show's first song when she saw Hesford sprawled on the stage. The next moments were chaotic. The music stopped. Audience members shouted that Hesford should be given water, that the makeup should be wiped from his body.

Two fans who knew CPR rushed forward. Tom Swiss, a shiatsu therapist in a purple top hat, took charge of pushing on Hesford's chest. Each time Swiss pressed down, the blood shot out from Hesford's heart into his arteries. When he paused, blood rushed back in.

Sarah Saccoccio, a Maryland Shock Trauma Center nurse, had arrived at the concert with her face painted like a skull from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Her skin was smeared with white, dark circles rimmed her eyes, and her lips were marked with slashes of black paint. She pressed her mouth to Hesford's, blowing air into his lungs.

"It was like watching death personified pumping life into Ian," Juskus said. "It was the most surreal thing I've ever seen."

Soon paramedics arrived. As they worked, audience members held hands and prayed.

Eventually, Hesford was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Mercy Medical Center.

Dr. Joseph Costa, a physician in the intensive care unit, and other medical workers circled around Hesford trying to resuscitate him. For 45 minutes, they tried to coax his heart to beat, shocking it with a defibrillator 18 times. It had now been about 90 minutes since Hesford first collapsed.

"We thought he was a goner," said Costa. "But there was one resident who said, 'Let's keep going. If it were me, I would not want you to stop.' "

The team shocked Hesford's heart one more time. It began to beat.

Mercy staff members hurried Hesford into a special treatment room in which the body is cooled to prevent brain damage. Cooling the body slows the metabolism, and, in turn, appears to limit the damage.

Meanwhile, band members from Telesma had rushed into the hospital, their faces still streaked with paint.

Juskus said her heart sank when she first saw Hesford — tubes jutted from his body, and he was hooked up to a cluster of machines.

"Once we got there, no one talked. We were in a state of shock," Juskus said. "It didn't look good."

The next morning, things looked even worse: Hesford's heart stopped again. But doctors managed to get it beating once more.

A show of love

About 15 years ago, Hesford fell off his mountain bike and broke his collarbone. He used the two weeks of medical leave from his job in a warehouse to teach himself to play the didgeridoo.

"The sound was familiar somehow," said Hesford. "That's how it is with every instrument I play — it's always deja vu."

For Hesford, playing music is a sort of meditation. When he and Sage formed Telesma — the name comes from the Greek root of "talisman" — they sought to create music that would elevate listeners to a deeper state of consciousness.

"It doesn't matter what instrument you're playing, or from what musical tradition. That's you expressing the human spirit," he said.

On the Saturday morning after his collapse, as Hesford lay sedated, musicians gathered in the narrow room to begin a vigil. With the permission of Mercy staffers, they brought instruments. Guitars. Flutes. Harps. Singing bowls.

The musicians leaned close to his sleeping body, playing low tones. Throat singers crowded around his bed. Some played didgeridoos.

"They would let us play right over him so the tones were going into his body," said Sage.

Mostly, Sage says, people sat in the hospital room, "holding hands and believing."

But doctors prepared Hesford's relatives and friends for more bad news. Since his brain had been deprived of normal oxygen levels for so long, it was likely that his personality and intellect would never be the same. He might never be able to speak, let alone sing or play music.

But a week after the collapse, Hesford began to wake. His eyes sought out the faces in his hospital room. "Wow," he said.

For a couple of days, he said only two things: "Wow" and "I love you."

Soon Hesford was walking around the ward. He was confused — he thought it was 1995 and Bill Clinton was still in the White House — and had to be frequently reminded that he was in the hospital because his heart had stopped. While he was unconscious, Telesma's latest album arrived; each time he heard it, he marveled at the songs as if he had never heard them before. But bit by bit, his memory returned.

Sue Brown, Hesford's night nurse in Mercy's intensive care unit, was stunned at how quickly and completely he recovered.

"I could see changes in him from the beginning of a shift to the end," she said. "I've been working 25 years in the ICU, and I've never seen anyone recover like this. I'm telling everyone: I've witnessed a miracle."

The staffers on the ward, accustomed to witnessing painful, partial recoveries, were heartened by Hesford's rebound.

"It was such a positive thing for the whole ICU, to have someone like him who was so sick and did so well," said Costa. "He and his friends and family had such a positive energy. It was so good for all of us."

A few weeks after Hesford left the hospital, he returned for a party with the nurses and doctors who had cared for him. He embraced them and spoke, for the first time, with nurses who had watched over him when he was in a coma.

Hesford says he does not remember the events of the week leading up to his collapse or the week immediately afterward. Even the details of his second week are fuzzy. But he recalls clearly the emotional intensity of returning to awareness while surrounded by family and friends.

"As far as I'm concerned, I fell asleep for two weeks and woke up and was showered by love," he said.

Being a musician can be a lonely life, he says. Grueling practices and frequent tours can make it hard to maintain relationships. But the love he felt while recovering has caused him to shrug off any illusion of loneliness, he says.

"I can never feel lonely again," he said. "It's been fundamentally disproven."

Hesford is not sure how he will pay his staggering medical bills. He does not have health insurance and has little savings. Besides his musical career, he has worked a series of part-time jobs, like waiting tables at Joe Squared pizza in Station North.

Yet Hesford describes his collapse and recovery as "an extreme blessing."

"It's one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said.

His mind and body have recovered fully. Doctors implanted a pacemaker in case Hesford's heart stops beating again. He has returned to his music with renewed fervor, more firm in the convictions behind his work's spiritual aspects.

"I wouldn't take any of it back. What I gained from it was invaluable," Hesford said. "I didn't know how much of a community there was. How much love."

In late July, exactly three months after Hesford collapsed, the members of Telesma played another show at Rams Head Live. Hesford's body was painted in swirls of paint. Ecstatically, he pounded the drums, danced, blew into the didgeridoo. Two audience members joined the band onstage — Swiss and Saccoccio, who had frantically blown life into Hesford's body.

The show was called "Resurrection."