Still Pickin’

Bluegrass music and its community offered therapy and support after a life-threatening brain aneurysm

Tyler Jackson (’18) had, unfortunately, gotten used to the head-splitting migraines that came and went over the past few years. This one, however, was different.

The 2018 Campbell University graduate was living in Lillington and working part-time as an adjunct Spanish professor a year ago, and on that Halloween afternoon, he met some friends at a local restaurant when the headache first began. The pain was bearable until that night, and when his roommate got home, he found Jackson lying on the floor.

“I remember hearing him walk in, and the first thing I said was, ‘I’m OK,’ which wasn’t true,” Jackson recalls. “I just didn’t want the sight of me on the floor to scare them.”

The ambulance was called (the driver turned out to be another friend), and Jackson was rushed to a nearby hospital.

Three days later, he woke up.

After he was flown from Central Harnett Medical Center to the trauma center at UNC Hospitals that Saturday night, doctors discovered a ruptured brain aneurysm at the base of Jackson’s brain. On Sunday, surgeons successfully relieved the pressure and stopped the bleeding, and on Monday, Jackson underwent another five-hour surgery to remove the aneurysm.

The surgery caused Jackson to lose his hearing in his right ear, and it would be weeks before he would be able to walk unassisted and regain his balance — but he was alive.

One year later, he’s thankful for his friends for getting him to the hospital, his family for being by his side, the surgeons who spent hours on him and the “massive” amount of prayers and support from people all over the world who share his biggest passion — bluegrass music.

“When I say ‘massive,’ I mean … it was like the entire bluegrass community,” Jackson says. “Thousands of people I’ve never met and who didn’t know me — those three days I was out, the outpouring of support was just amazing and an incredible thing to wake up to.”

Jackson is a skilled musician and banjoist who was first introduced to bluegrass when he was 3 when his parents would take him to festivals all over the state. He developed a love for it and a desire to play, and at the age of 12, he got his first banjo. Today, he plays banjo in a professional bluegrass quintet, Drive Time, based out of Roxboro.

When news of Jackson’s surgery hit his band, his bandmates posted several calls for prayer and support on various bluegrass social threads. Bluegrass Today posted a lengthy story about his surgery before he ever woke up, and later that month, the site interviewed Jackson’s family and fellow musicians for a piece about his recovery.

His bandmate Austyn Howell said then that Jackson and his family were like his own family, and Howell’s attempts to rally the tight-knit community around him were the least he could do.

“Something I always say on stage when I’m introducing Tyler is, ‘He’s a fine banjo player and an even better man,’” Howell told Bluegrass Today. “I know that is sort of cliché sounding, but I’ve always meant it, and I’ve never introduced anyone else that way. It doesn’t mean I haven’t played with other great humans, but Tyler has a big heart, and he loves to see people happy. He’d literally give you the shirt off his back, and really cares about how other people feel. If you know Tyler or his folks, you’re pulling for them.”

During his physical and mental rehabilitation, Jackson turned to music for both emotional and physical support.

Tyler Jackson, a 2018 graduate of Campbell University, plays banjo for the Roxboro-based bluegrass group, Drive Time. Before the pandemic, the band played in several festivals across the state. Learn more at Photo by Ben Brown

“The hardest thing for me to readjust to was the dexterity and strength in my hands coming back,” he says. “Nothing has hindered me other than I’m now deaf in my right ear [near the aneurysm]. I would normally turn that ear to the instrument when I played, so I’ve kind of had to learn to use the other ear when I’m on stage. Other than that, I can still play, and I can still do what I love doing.”

Music was a big morale booster, and not just for Jackson. He says his father told him a story only recently about sitting outside of his room a few weeks after they returned from the hospital and hearing him pick up his banjo and play.

“He said it was the moment he knew I was going to be OK,” he says. “Because I still had music.”

Jackson recalls his story in late October of 2021, nearly a year after he was rushed to the hospital. He says he’ll always be reminded of it because it happened on a holiday, but this one-year milestone is special to him because of how his life has changed since it happened.

He’s closer to God, he says, because of the role his faith and the prayers from others played in his recovery. He’s also learned not to take things — or people — for granted. On Oct. 17 of this year, he asked his girlfriend, also a skilled musician, to marry him.

“It’s given me a new perspective on things, because you just never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “It makes me think there’s no point in wasting time. The best example is with my fiancé — I knew within months of dating her that I would marry her. So I decided that if I learned nothing else from all of this, I should not waste time and wait on things when I’m this sure about it.”