'He had no pulse': Indianapolis drummer back to life one day, one song, one show at a time
Published 5:00 a.m. ET June 15, 2023
Being Dead couldn't stop Anthony Parsons from playing rock and roll.
In the parking lot of a south-side Indianapolis bar, Parsons is climbing onto a makeshift stage before a crowd of 150 people. This is his scene. There are men holding bottles of Coors Light as they mull around in black t-shirts and blue jeans, hair hidden under ball caps or bandanas. Some women are in denim shorts - others wear leather. A dozen parked motorcycles thrum to Parsons' left, glimmering under the setting sun.
It's Bike Night at 31 Bar & Grill. The breeze outside carries the scent of cigarette smoke and cooked tenderloin. Weed, too.
Parsons, now perched behind a drumkit, flicks a hot cig to the asphalt waiting as three other bandmates strap on their guitars. Then the stage lights flash, the sound system crackles to life, and Parsons begins beating on the toms as the crowd roars in applause for Problem with Polly.
"Music has been everything to my healing process," Parsons said, speaking slowly but deliberately. His voice quavers, each word popping off his tongue like a rimshot. "It's all about the music. It was like that before I died, and even more so now."
About 18 months ago, Parsons suffered a catastrophic brain injury. The 43-year-old has struggled through months of therapy, relearning how to walk, talk, drive and more importantly, he said, how to bang the drums again.
Despite setbacks, Parsons says he's "fighting like hell" to get his life back one day, one song, and one show at a time.
Brain injury takes Indianapolis musician's memories, but not his life
The brain injury stole most of Parsons memories from December 2021. The places he went, the people he saw, the time he spent with loved ones at Christmas - gone, like music notes erased off a sheet of paper.
All he can remember of that December is playing two gigs at the beginning of the month and one band practice. There was excitement buzzing in the room, Parsons said, as he and his closest friends - his band brothers - unboxed their first PA system.
The next moment he was in Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana with no idea how he'd gotten there.
It was Jan. 19 2022. Parsons had spent the last three weeks in a coma. He couldn't recall getting out of bed on Dec. 29, 2021. He didn't remember lumbering toward the bathroom, coughing so loudly it woke his wife.
"It was strange," Amanda Parsons said. "It was this constant cough and I thought about checking on him, but then I said, 'No, if he needs me, he'll come get me', and so I went back to sleep."
Seconds later, Chrissy - the couple's rescue pitbull - began barking "like crazy," as if someone was trying to break into their home. Alarmed, Amanda Parsons rushed out of bed and flung open the door to the bathroom. There she found her husband of nine years sprawled on the floor, unconscious.
Anthony Parsons considers this to be one of the luckiest moments of his life.
His spouse, a nurse practitioner with 12 years of experience in cardiology at Methodist Hospital, sprang into action.
"He had no pulse. His heart wasn't beating," Amanda Parsons said. "I kind of simultaneously dialed 911, put it on speakerphone, and started CPR."
Time was not on their side.
Medical experts say there's a window of about 4 to 5 minutes the human brain can endure without oxygen. Anything longer than that and people risk serious, irreversible brain damage, including death.
"The longer you don't have a pulse, the less chance you have of getting one back," said Samantha Amore, a pulmonary and critical care nurse practitioner who treated Anthony Parsons at Methodist Hospital.
Amanda Parsons worked feverishly, performing CPR until medics arrived roughly 12 minutes later. They rushed her husband from the couple's home in Danville to Hendricks Regional Health. An ER doctor believed his heart had stopped beating for 45-60 minutes before they could restore his pulse.
Anthony Parsons was transferred to his wife's cardiology department at Methodist Hospital. The odds of him leaving alive were slim. Nine out of 10 people who have cardiac arrests outside a hospital die, according to the National Institute of Health.
"I knew it was bad," Amanda Parsons said.
Indianapolis musician slipped into coma for weeks
His wife spent long hours by her husband's side as he lay in a coma at Methodist Hospital on life support, hooked to a ventilator, connected to tubes and wires and cold beeping machinery.
As days turned into weeks, Amanda Parsons read aloud from "The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl." The Foo Fighters' legendary frontman is one of her husband's favorite musicians.
She was a third of the way finished with the book when Anthony Parsons opened his brown eyes.
As he gradually came to, a process that took several days, he can remember the shock and confusion of waking up in a hospital bed, the relief he felt seeing Amanda Parsons by his side as she explained what happened. It would take weeks thought before he could talk coherently and properly express himself.
"His first words to me were, 'I... love...' and then nothing else," Amanda Parsons said. "We tried using sign language to communicate at first. His mother had been a special education teacher and she taught him how to sign the alphabet."
Doctors determined Anthony Parsons had injured the part of his brain responsible for coordinating motor and muscle movement, the cerebellum. Once it allowed him to create complicated rhythms on the cymbals and snare. Now he struggled to brush his teeth.
He couldn't drum. It was 'loss like you couldn't imagine.'
"I lost my identity," Anthony Parsons said. "It was loss like you couldn't imagine when I tried picking up the drums again five months later. I was a stranger to myself."
What followed next were months of occupational, speech, and physical therapy with one singular goal in mind: getting back on stage.
Allison Spaeth, an occupational therapist with the Northwest Brain Injury Center, remembers the challenges Parsons faced from February to August 2022.
"He had very slow, very uncoordinated movements mostly with his arms," Spaeth said. "Being a drummer, it was probably one of the worst diagnoses he could have, honestly."
Spaeth helped rebuild the muscle strength in his arms as well as his motor skills. together they drummed on boxes, tables, and medicine balls. They did hand-clapping exercises using a metronome.
And when he wasn't working out rhythms during his occupational therapy sessions, Anthony Parsons was drumming at home. He never gave up.
Cheering him on was guitarist and bandmate Scott Parrott, who knew Anthony Parsons worried about being replaced. Parrott encouraged him to keep working.
"When I put the band together, I knew what drummer I wanted. It was Anthony from the start," Parrott said. "We never once talked about replacing the guy. It just never entered our minds."
The band waited for him to recover, then slowed their music to match Anthony Parsons' abilities. As his drumming gradually improved, more songs were added to their setlist.
"He's a different drummer than he was before in so many good ways because our music style is changing," Parrott said. "he's more than a bandmate. That's what our band is - we're more brothers than anything else."
It took more than a year, but Anthony Parsons was seated behind his drumkit at 31 Bar & Grill on May 9, surrounded by friends, doing what he loved, playing rock and roll. Parsons mashed the foot pedal to his bass drum, banged the crash cymbals and beat the toms mercilessly as Problem with Polly kicked off the night's set with their original song, "Preacher Man."
The fans in the crowd cheered Parsons all night. This was his scene. This is what life for the Indianapolis musician was all about, and with a second chance to live it, Parsons says he plans to push himself harder than ever to achieve his dreams.
"I want our band to tour the world," he said. "Anything is possible. That's what I believe. You can overcome anything."