After Ron Sipes had a pair of strokes in October 2012, doctors predicted he would never walk or talk again.
But Sipes has defied the odds. On May 18, in a voice clear and strong, he sang out the opening lines of a song made popular by Louis Armstrong:
I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
Sipes’s solo came in the finale of a stirring concert at the Middleburg Community Center. The performance was put on by Different Strokes for Different Folks, a group of people who are recovering from strokes. The choir meets weekly at Inova Loudoun Hospital for music therapy sessions.
Before his strokes, Sipes, 57, was a professional musician. He played oboe in several symphony orchestras and met his wife, viola player Patty Plombon, in the early 1990s when both were members of an orchestra in Spain.
His lengthy recovery and rehabilitation has included multiple surgeries to remove and replace bone in his skull. The couple had been living in Manassas, but Sipes eventually moved to an apartment in Fairfax County where he can take public transit to treatment and rehabilitation appointments. Plombon became his full-time caregiver.
“The bottom line is that Ron is safe, and he’s healthy and he’s walking,” Plombon said.
But Sipes can no longer play the oboe — at least, not yet.
“Losing the use of my left arm has been traumatic,” he said. “One of my motivations is to get my left arm working so I can play the oboe again. It’s something I pray for every day.”
The music therapy sessions give Sipes — who said he used to sing “only in the shower” — the opportunity to make music again with his new friends.
Music therapist Tom Sweitzer started the sessions about two years ago for a handful of stroke survivors. They now attract 15 to 20 participants every week, Sweitzer said.
Inova offers the program at no charge through a partnership with A Place to Be, a Middleburg-based nonprofit group. It is part of a broader initiative Inova has launched to expand music therapy into such areas as oncology, the intensive care unit and the children’s emergency room.
Ray Leone, a music therapist with A Place to Be, said music is an ideal therapy for people who have had strokes — many of whom have difficulty speaking — because it engages the whole brain.
“Speech is [controlled by] the left side of your brain,” Leone said. “So when someone has a stroke and they have an injury to the left side of their brain, and they can’t speak because of that injury, once you add music, the right side of your brain sort of takes over.”
Although Sipes regained his speech soon after the strokes, Plombon believes the music sessions, combined with other therapies, are helping his recovery. He recently progressed from using a wheelchair to walking with a cane.
The music therapy has also helped Sipes’s state of mind — “being positive, and knowing that there’s hope around the corner,” he said.
Sipes isn’t the only accomplished musician in the group. Mary Carter, who studied piano and sang in her church choir before her stroke 17 years ago, said that — aside from her husband — music has been her “number one helper” during her recovery.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Carter, 70, of Woodbridge. “Music therapy helped me sing better than I can speak. I have to practice, but then, putting words and music [together] — it’s wonderful.”
For the concert, Sweitzer selected songs that prompted the choir members to spell while singing: “L-O-V-E” and the Aretha Franklin classic, “Respect.” Their rendition of the latter included verses the group members wrote to express their feelings about their recovery:
I’m not invisible, no not me.
Everything is possible, wanna be free.
Just gotta be patient, take my time.
Just take my time.
At the end, they emphatically shouted in unison what they are asking for: “Respect!”
Sipes joined the other members of the choir in pouring his heart and voice into songs of love, respect and what a wonderful world it is, after all. And when the choir’s last note faded and the audience started to applaud, Sipes sang out, in his best Satchmo voice: