National Post (Latest Edition)
My doctors told me that it would take a week for every day I was in hospital for complete recovery. That’s 45 weeks, so I have about five months to go. But I’ve fought like never before in my life to get back.
— Renowned Montreal cellist Denis Brott,
‘Don’t be afraid of COVID.” Renowned Montreal cellist Denis Brott shuddered when he heard these words uttered by U. S. President Donald Trump, a few days after the latter tested positive for the coronavirus.
“There’s still so much the medical world doesn’t know about this disease. There can be so many long- term repercussions,” Brott said in a Zoom interview.
Brott, who turns 70 in December, knows first- hand the horrors of COVID- 19. Upon returning from a series of European concerts in mid- March, he got hit with the coronavirus and had the fight of his life while spending 32 days in an induced coma on a ventilator at the Centre hospitalier de l’université de Montréal ( CHUM). His prognosis was grim.
Brott, also the founder/ artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival and professor at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, doesn’t mince words describing his ordeal:
“My kidneys were failing. My liver was failing. I developed a bacteria. I suffered viral and bronchial infections. My lungs turned white. I couldn’t breathe on my own. I lost 25 pounds. I lost such muscle mass I was unable to walk.”
And that was just the physical side. Brott also suffered from terrifying hallucinations due to heavy doses of steroids and mind- altering meds like Haldol, Seroquel, Dilaudid and Propofol.
After 45 days in the hospital, Brott returned to his St- Sauveur retreat May 4, although he could barely stand, much less walk. His battle was still far from over. He had to deal with post- traumatic stress and nightmares. He developed severe neuropathy. The pain was excruciating.
Try as Trump has urged, Brott couldn’t help but have COVID “dominate” his life.
“I was among the first people to be treated for COVID at CHUM — where my care was world- class,” Brott recalled. “But there’s still a big, black hole in my life during that period in an induced coma. It’s just by looking at the hospital records that I know what happened to me and about the insanely powerful cocktails of drugs I received, which resulted in absolutely horrific hallucinations. While conscious later in ICU, I remember they had to turn me repeatedly like a rotisserie chicken.”
While he appears to look fine and sounds most lucid now, Brott continues to undergo physio and other treatment.
“My doctors told me that it would take a week for every day I was in hospital for complete recovery. That’s 45 weeks, so I have about five months to go. But I’ve fought like never before in my life to get back. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like without playing.”
Regardless of the pain, three weeks after leaving the hospital, Brott attempted to play his cello. He had next to no strength. His trembling hands could hardly hold his bow. The strings under his left hand felt like “razor wire.” The sounds his cello made were barely audible.
“For a musician, your instrument is your voice. I felt like someone who had a stroke and lost the ability to speak.”
But Brott persevered. On Sept. 27, he gave his first recital — recorded and carried online — since early March in performing, along with organist Jean-willy Kunz, Kol Nidre for the Yom Kippur service from Temple EmanuEl in Westmount.
“It was just miraculous,” Brott marvelled. “I wasn’t gong to miss this performance. I had forgotten my mother played the same piece at the temple when I was a kid. And when she stopped doing that years later, I took over. It became my tradition.”
Brott, winner of two Juno Awards, comes from one of the city’s, and the country’s, most distinguished families of classical musicians. In addition to being the younger brother of maestro Boris, Denis is the son of late violinist, composer, conductor Alexander and late virtuoso cellist Lotte.
“I figure I’m back playing at between 80 and 85 per cent of where I was. But my demands on myself are great.”
Brott is back to teaching, both virtually and, briefly, live when it was permitted. He’s also reimagining his Montreal Chamber Music Festival on a digital level now and, hopefully, on a live level next summer. He has even landed acclaimed violinist Pinchas Zukerman to appear for the event.
Plus, among other projects, he has been busying himself assembling two video series: A Day in the Life, featuring 10 young winners from the Musical Instrument Bank Competition, and Home from Away, showcasing an array of star, ex- pat Canadian classical artists.
“Regardless of what I’ve been through, I feel very lucky to still be able to work and think. What COVID has done for me is make me so grateful for the gift of life.”