As drug after drug failed, Ettinger's mind turned to surgery. He had referred Gayle to his colleague Mehta, who first saw her in the fall of 2006, before her stay in the epilepsy monitoring unit. By the time they figured out what was causing Gayle's seizures, Mehta had to confront Gayle with some bad news: The only way to stop the seizures was to remove all of the brain cells that acted up during her episodes.
Gayle panicked. They were literally going to scoop out part of her brain. "When you hear brain surgery, you figure you're going to come out handicapped," recalls Gayle, who thought the procedure might leave her mentally retarded. "I told Dr. Mehta, 'I am not going to do it.'"
She returned to her native Canada in the summer of 2007—that's when the music on the stoops of Queens is the loudest, she says—to weigh her options. She considered just continuing to live with the seizures. But, for months she'd been homebound, trying to live music-free, a lifestyle that caused her to become depressed. "I was just fed up," she says. "I'm living this life and it's not the way I want to live."
She called Mehta and told him she'd have the surgery—which only four people with musicogenic epilepsy had ever had before.
Weeks after her first turn in the seizure monitoring unit, the doctors brought her back to find out where her seizures might be starting. They wanted to scan her brain while she convulsed. She put on "Temperature." Within five seconds, she recalls, she had a great big seizure.
Mehta and his team found the overexcited brain cells in the lower section of the brain behind her right ear—perhaps not surprising, because that's the part of the brain that figures out what to do with sounds. The hyperactive cells were also in areas of the brain involved in emotions and memories of particular experiences.
Because of where the cells causing the seizures were, Mehta needed to make sure that cutting them out wouldn't leave Gayle unable to understand conversations, speak or remember key events. He sent her to a neuropsychologist, who put various parts of her brain to sleep and then gave her a battery of speech and memory tests. The areas that would be left after the surgery could compensate for those Mehta would be cutting out.
In late September Gayle went under the knife for the first of two operations. During the procedure, Mehta and his team put hundreds of electrodes deep into the areas of her brain involved in her seizures. They took her back to the epilepsy monitoring unit so he could map specific parts of her brain and make the most precise cuts possible. She stayed there for four or five days without her medications and without any abnormal brain activity. The scientists finally gave her back her iPod, and as she slept she had a seizure. While she convulsed, the electrodes picked up the activity of specific cells in her brain.
She was ready for the second operation. In early October Mehta removed a small egg's worth of her brain—almost 2.5 inches ( six centimeters) long.
Since then, Gayle has been seizure-free. Mehta says she's had no mental side effects from the surgery. She has returned to her church choir. In January she enrolled at York College/C.U.N.Y. in Queens, where she is studying to be a math teacher and no longer fears the ring of a classmate's cell phone. And she is free to listen to whatever she chooses—even Sean Paul.
"Trust me," she says, "music is everywhere—I never realized that until I started getting seizures."