Teen Drummer Receives Special Gift from Michigan Marching Band After Surgery

November 02, 2017 6:00 AM

When a medical student (and former marching band member) noticed one patient’s passion for drum line, she asked the band for help lifting his spirits.

When Micah Williamson’s mom said he needed to pack for the hospital, he grabbed two items right away: his drum practice pad and drumsticks.

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The Mason High School snare drummer was treated at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital for advanced Crohn’s disease and required a complex surgery that involved removing nearly a foot of his diseased small intestine.

He missed playing in the band while out of school, which made the special gift waiting for him when he awoke from surgery that much sweeter: a signed drumhead, drumsticks and a limited-edition “Snares” T-shirt from the Michigan Marching Band.

“That was so awesome,” says Micah, 16, a high school sophomore. “I love watching the U-M drum line. They are all really talented, and I look up to those guys, so this was really meaningful. It just made the whole situation so much better.”

Third-year Michigan medical student AnneMarie Opipari arranged for the surprise after meeting Micah during one of her rotations and noticing his drumsticks. They quickly bonded when she shared that she was a former U-M marching band member, as part of the color guard.

“His passion for marching band was clear, and it was something I could relate to closely. To this day, it stands as one of the most influential experiences of my life and one that I often look back to for motivation,” Opipari says.

She reached out to the U-M band for help lifting Micah’s spirits. In less than 24 hours, the band responded with the gift idea.

“Micah is an incredibly special young man, and both his and his family’s resilience against a difficult disease has been extremely inspiring and motivating to me as a student, as were the efforts of the drum line to put together such a thoughtful gift for Micah,” Opipari says.

An undiagnosed disease

Micah started experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort nearly five years ago when his family lived in Wisconsin. After a colonoscopy, doctors there told him they thought he was lactose intolerant, leading to several diet changes at home.

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But after moving to the Lansing area a year later, the symptoms continued to get worse. He was vomiting, losing weight and spending days curled up in pain over recent months.

It meant missing days of band camp, canceling plans with friends at the last minute and spending many days of his summer high school trip to France in discomfort.

By the time Micah was referred to the Mott GI team of pediatric gastroenterologist Haley Neef, M.D., and Malerie Kachenmeister, R.N., his symptoms had gone unmanaged for nearly four years. Further tests found that the problem was more than a food intolerance — he had inflammation in the digestive tract called Crohn’s disease.

The disease was so advanced that medication was ineffective and surgery was the only option to prevent its progress.

A team led by Mott pediatric surgeon Matthew Ralls, M.D., removed nearly a foot of damaged intestine and Micah’s appendix. While Crohn’s is an incurable disease, doctors expect that surgery will make medical management more effective in reducing the risk of flare-ups and improve his quality of life.

Mott providers also hope to keep Micah in remission with steroid-free medication, an area the digestive health and gastroenterology team has researched and specialized in.

“I already feel better,” Micah says. “It was a rough summer seeing all of my friends out having fun and not being able to be with them. Hopefully, I will be able to function more normally and not have to plan all my days around being sick.”

Micah's surprise gifts from the Michigan Marching Band.

Back to beats

A few days after surgery, he could be heard tapping his drumsticks in his hospital bed.

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“I told him, ‘I’ll know you’re feeling better when those drumsticks come out,’” says his mom, Bethany. “He was in such misery. We are just so happy to finally get ahead of this.”

While in the hospital, his friends from the drum line FaceTimed him from practice and his band director, Beth Bousfield, stopped by to visit.

Although recovery time may mean missing the rest of the marching band season, Micah — who has been playing in the percussion section since fifth grade — is already looking forward to concert band season this winter.

“He’s always been so passionate about playing in the band, both because he loves the drums and also because of the wonderful support system from his friends in the drum line,” Bethany says. “He plays all the time — at home, traveling, everywhere. He’s found something he loves and where he fits in. It’s become such an important part of his life.”

That’s why the family treasures the gift from the Wolverine percussionists.

“It was such an amazing surprise and put a huge smile on his face,” Bethany says. “We were just blown away. AnneMarie and the team just went above and beyond. It was so nice to have happy tears instead of sad tears during this experience. That’s something we will always remember.”

Photos by Bryan McCullough