His heart stopped, but life continues for Telesma musician

Didgeridoo player Ian Hesford discovers 'a blessing'

  • Ian Hesford performs at Rams Head Live, in his first concert since he went into cardiac arrest in April.
Ian Hesford performs at Rams Head Live, in his first concert… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
August 03, 2012|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Ian Hesford, his face and body painted in bold swirls, stretched his arms out toward his bandmates. The six members of Telesma joined hands and lifted their voices, finding the key for the performance. Then they took their places. Hesford headed toward the stack of barrel-shaped drums and long, wooden didgeridoos and soon a tangle of sounds — ethereal, tribal, melodic — rose from the stage.

Men and women in the audience began to sway, lifting their faces — many, like the performers, adorned with designs resembling ancient letters — to the stage. A Telesma show, band members say, is meant to be a spiritual experience in which fragments of mystic writings, ancient rhythms and futuristic tones weave a sound primal and transcendent.

On that April evening at Rams Head Live, among the pulse of drumbeats, throbbing guitar chords and the lead singer's lush tones, there came an unexpected sound: a microphone stand clattering to the ground. Beside it lay Hesford. An elemental rhythm had been stilled: Hesford's heartbeat.

What happened next — the woman dressed as Death who blew life into Hesford's lungs, the paramedics and doctors who shocked his heart long after they would normally have given up, and the friends who gathered in his hospital room to sing him back to life — is a tale as profound as the lyrics to a Telesma song. Despite the jagged scars on his chest, the weeks of recovery and the enormous medical bills, Hesford says, he is grateful for the experience: He has been resurrected.

"It hasn't been an inconvenience. It's been a blessing," said Hesford. "I'm the guy that got a second life."

Finding music

Hesford, 38, grew up in Odenton, the only child of a single mother, and worked in construction after graduating from Arundel Senior High. In his early 20s, he became drawn to the didgeridoo, a traditional instrument of Australian aborigines. He taught himself the breathing technique needed to play the instrument, which produces sounds that call to mind a heavenly choir of frogs. Hesford also learned to drum, to sing from his throat and to play a Philippine bamboo mouth harp called the kubing.

Meanwhile, his interest in music began to converge with his spiritual beliefs. He attended New Age festivals and sought others who believed that music could open the mind to transcendental experiences. Hesford and a friend, Jason Sage, founded Telesma in 2004, and called their style "electro-acoustic psychedelic world dance music." Soon they were touring, hosting "visionary gatherings" and collaborating with well-known psychedelic artist Alex Grey.

"Music touches you in a place behind and below your conscious mind," said Hesford, in earnest and passionate tones. The Charles Village resident speaks with a hint of a Baltimore accent. "It is spiritual in the most basic, fundamental sense."

Hesford's hands move constantly when he speaks, as if playing an invisible instrument. His body is lean and powerful, his muscles shaped by the rigorous way he plays drums.

Doctors are unsure what caused Hesford's heart to cease beating that night. He had no history of heart problems and had no drugs in his system, doctors and nurses who treated him say. Doctors hypothesize that a freak infection caused Hesford's heart to become enlarged, leading to cardiac arrest.

A heart stops

Dressed in a shimmering sari, her face dotted with Hindu symbols, Telesma's lead singer Joanne Juskus was three or four minutes into the show's first song when she saw Hesford sprawled on the stage. The next moments were chaotic. The music stopped. Audience members shouted that Hesford should be given water, that the makeup should be wiped from his body.

Two fans who knew CPR rushed forward. Tom Swiss, a shiatsu therapist in a purple top hat, took charge of pushing on Hesford's chest. Each time Swiss pressed down, the blood shot out from Hesford's heart into his arteries. When he paused, blood rushed back in.

Sarah Saccoccio, a Maryland Shock Trauma Center nurse, had arrived at the concert with her face painted like a skull from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Her skin was smeared with white, dark circles rimmed her eyes, and her lips were marked with slashes of black paint. She pressed her mouth to Hesford's, blowing air into his lungs.

"It was like watching death personified pumping life into Ian," Juskus said. "It was the most surreal thing I've ever seen."

Soon paramedics arrived. As they worked, audience members held hands and prayed.

Eventually, Hesford was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Mercy Medical Center.

Dr. Joseph Costa, a physician in the intensive care unit, and other medical workers circled around Hesford trying to resuscitate him. For 45 minutes, they tried to coax his heart to beat, shocking it with a defibrillator 18 times. It had now been about 90 minutes since Hesford first collapsed.

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