Trumpeter marvels at making music again after double lung transplant: ‘It was a pretty special moment’

Dan Spees, 64, picked up his horn for the first time in months and played “Joy to the World” in his Northwestern Memorial Hospital room days after his operation.

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Northwestern Memorial Hospital occupational therapist Brittany Hatlestad watches Dan Spees as he plays the trumpet for the first time since having double lung transplant surgery.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital occupational therapist Brittany Hatlestad watches as Dan Spees plays the trumpet for the first time since having double lung transplant surgery.

Northwestern Medicine

As Dan Spees got ready to play his beloved trumpet in his hospital room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital last month, family and staff weren’t sure what to expect.

Just days before, the 64-year-old had undergone hourslong double lung transplant surgery for pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs, caused by a rare immune disorder.

His condition had forced him to put down his horn for good four months earlier.

“I just couldn’t do it anymore; it just wasn’t really possible,” Spees said. “I didn’t have the strength and support from a pulmonary perspective that I needed to be able to do it well, and I wasn’t going to do it if I couldn’t do it well. So I stopped. I stopped playing, and I just assumed that, you know, this is it. I’m not going to be able to play again.”

But as Spees warmed up by playing scales, the notes came easier than he had expected. So, he looked to his wife for advice on what he should do next.

“I’m looking at her and saying, ‘What do I play?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, just do something easy,’” Spees said.

To the amazement of family and staff, the trumpet’s sharp, clear tones filled Spees’ hospital room as he proudly stood — hospital gown and all — and played “Joy to the World.” Spees and his wife shared a hug after the performance as they realized that he didn’t have to give up his passion after all.

“I really didn’t know if you would ever play again,” his wife, Jan, said as the two wrapped their arms around each other.

“It was really exciting,” Spees said. “I realized that there was no reason why I couldn’t do it again.”

Hospital staff didn’t expect him to be able to play a full song so soon after his surgery, and they thought he would be able to blow only a few notes, according to occupational therapist Brittany Hatlestad, who suggested Spees introduce the trumpet in his rehabilitation program.

“I went in and just told him that, you know, whatever he is able to do, is more than enough,” she said. “So going in and not really having any expectations, I think, allowed for a good outcome, no matter what the performance was, but it was pretty cool. Everybody was in tears. It was a pretty special moment.”

Spees’ blood-oxygen level was monitored during his solo. It was at an “ideal” level of 98 percent as he blew into the trumpet, the hospital said. But Spees isn’t quite cleared to play every day just yet.

Spees, who lives in Lakewood in McHenry County, fell in love with the trumpet when he was 10. It became a real passion for him. He played through high school and college, and although he didn’t pursue it professionally after graduating, performed with bands and symphonies when he wasn’t working.

Dan Spees wearing his lung transplant survivor T-shirt at home in McHenry County after his successful double lung transplant surgery.

Dan Spees wearing his lung transplant survivor T-shirt at home in McHenry County after his successful double lung transplant surgery.

Northwestern Medicine/Provided

Spees is the director of information technology for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. He regularly plays with the Harper College Wind Symphony and its jazz ensemble.

But after his diagnosis it became increasingly difficult for him to play his horn. So he made the decision to retire his instrument in April.

He likened the feeling to that of athletes hanging up their cleats.

“When they reached a point and realized they couldn’t play baseball anymore or whatever it is they were doing,” Spees said. “They’ve got other things that you can do, but it’s hard to give up that piece.”

And even when a donor was found and he was approved for the double lung transplant surgery, Spees said doctors weren’t sure if it meant that he would be able to play again.

Hatlestad said that after seeing his comeback performance, she thinks the trumpet could be a great tool to strengthen the muscles around his lungs after the surgery.

“When he’s playing the trumpet, that’s requiring him to take those super deep breaths in, so he can have that forceful, exhale to make the noise,” Hatlestad said. “So that’s a really natural way to work on that breathing pattern in a way that he enjoys it.”

Dan Spees, second from left, plays with the Tessiturians band before his operation.

Dan Spees, second from left, plays with the Tessiturians band before his operation.

Provided

Spees said he still has a long journey back to where he was, but he’s eager to get back to playing regularly. He’s already texted his bandleader to expect him back in 2024.

“I’ve got about a month to go, then I should be done with rehab,” Spees said. “I’m really looking forward to getting cleared to practice again, get my horn out.”

It was only later that Spees realized how “Joy to the World” was a fitting choice for his comeback song. The piece celebrates the return of a savior, and includes these resonant lines:

“Let all their songs employ; While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.”

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