Sydney McKeever (C' 27) distinctiveness is immediately apparent: her sharp wit, effortless style, and staggering academic workload. But beneath the surface, her brain itself is equally unique. 

Sydney's sophomore year of high school she experienced a brain hemorrhage that unveiled a remarkable interconnectivity between her right and left brain hemispheres— a product of her extensive classical musical training from a young age. 

Sydney's engagement with music began in fifth grade with the viola, which she performed in symphony and chamber orchestras. She eventually extended her musical talents to paid shows at a historical center and fundraisers, including a memorable performance at the Long Beach Aquarium. While the viola was her main focus, she also dabbled in playing guitar, showcasing her musical versatility. While simply a passion at the time, Sydney had no idea the impact this musical training would have on her future brain injury.

“It was sophomore year and I was on my grind, as one is,” Sydney said recalling her days as a student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif. In the middle of class one day, she threw up, completely out of nowhere. Convinced it was just food poisoning, she decided to visit a clinic in her local strip mall. Despite receiving a clean bill of health, she found herself confined to the couch for two days, enduring intense bouts of vomiting and blinding head pain.

When Sydney finally went to the hospital, she underwent a battery of cognitive tests, all of which she passed with flying colors. She was once again sent home. However, her intuition told her something was still amiss. "I knew deep down that something wasn't right, but at the same time, I just wanted to go home," she admitted.

Despite her lingering concerns, Sydney returned to school for another four days, attempting to soldier on with her studies. But her health only continued to deteriorate. "I tried to push through, you know, took tests, did my assignments, but things just kept getting worse" she remembered. 

Sydney's mom sensed that the doctors were overlooking something critical, so she insisted on bringing Sydney back to the emergency room and requested a brain scan. The imaging revealed a significant hemorrhage, severe enough that, under normal circumstances, it should have impaired Sydney's cognitive functions to the point of failing the simple memory exercisess she had been passing for weeks.

Upon admission to a UCLA–affiliated hospital, Sydney immediately underwent a series of minor operations under general anesthesia. A few weeks later, the doctors gave her a birthday surprise: inaugural awake brain surgery. Despite efforts to "turn off" parts of Sydney's brain for examination during the procedure, she astounded medical professionals by maintaining her ability to speak. This revelation was just the beginning, as subsequent investigations uncovered the presence of arteriovenous malformation (AVM), the abnormal connection of arteries in the brain. Prompted by these discoveries, Sydney sought further consultation at UCSF, where scans revealed that the hemorrhage had mysteriously vanished.

"The story doesn't end there," Sydney explained. After all, miracles like that don't just happen. Six months later, she found herself back at the hospital for a routine but nevertheless invasive surgical checkup. Sydney, in her usual manner, approached the situation with a sense of humor. The day before, she even attended a concert, boasting to her friends, 'I'm so cool, I'm having brain surgery tomorrow.' However, the next day brought devastating news: the condition had never truly gone away. Sydney underwent radiosurgery in December of her junior year. Since then, she’s been returning for follow–up procedures every six months.

Sydney's case presented a unique challenge for medical professionals due to her retention of motor function and speaking capability following the procedure, which are often compromised in similar cases. Discussions with doctors revealed that Sydney's situation could be attributed to the intricate interplay between the two hemispheres of her brain, possibly influenced by her early classical music training. 

For instance, although cognitive functions are predominantly governed by the more analytical and logical right hemisphere, the strong foundational support from Sydney’s left hemisphere, nurtured through music training, served as a form of "backup." This meant that even when the right side faced impairments, she could still communicate effectively and avoid significant memory loss.

The idea that the discipline and complexity of classical music could forge neural pathways that would later provide resilience in the face of a medical crisis added a new layer of significance to her musical journey. While Sydney's musical abilities may have waned over time, her brain's adaptability from those abilities proved crucial for her recovery. 

Following her remarkable recovery, Sydney became the subject of research studies. These studies aimed to unravel the mystery behind her brain's unique functionality post–surgery. Particularly intriguing is how her brain continued to function normally and even exhibited progressive learning abilities after the procedure. Additionally, smaller studies delve into various aspects of Sydney's experience, such as long–term effects and potential missed symptoms, ensuring comprehensive monitoring and analysis. 

Sydney feels a sense of pride and curiosity in being a part of these research efforts; she's glad to contribute to the scientific community's understanding of the brain and is keen to see the insights that emerge from these studies.

With lots of time on her hands during her recovery period, Sydney found herself delving into various hobbies and activities to pass the time and maintain her sanity. She created a vegetarian cookbook for her dad and also got “weirdly into US history.” She even tried to teach herself to crochet. However, despite her best efforts, these attempts ended in comedic failure. 

Sydney’s condition has also clarified her aspirations for the future. From the age of five, she's harbored general dreams of becoming a doctor. During her experience as a patient, her interest in neuroscience was sparked. 

She discovered a profound fascination with understanding the intricacies of how the brain learns, remembers, and adapts. Her experiences forming close connections with the medical professionals who cared for her, also made her excited for the patient care side of being a doctor. This newfound passion ultimately steered her toward the path of pursuing a career in neurosurgery.