Sara Lynch has been giving piano lessons in Springfield since 1967. (Photo by Steve Pokin)


I was informed Sara Lynch had a “piano lessons” sign in her front yard; that she struggled with memory due to a tick bite years ago and subsequent brain swelling; and that her story of recovery might be inspiring.

The sign was right where I was told it would be.

In addition, the front-door welcome mat had piano keys on it. Next to the mat was a rock with a piano and the word “song” painted on it.

This is the welcome mat at the front door. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

She came to the door. Her T-shirt said:

88 keys

10 fingers

No problem

No ‘h’ in ‘Sara’: She is a 4-letter word

She invited me in, but in 50 minutes at 4 p.m. she had a lesson to give.

In her living room were two pianos and bookcases stacked with sheet music.

Two pianos are in Sara Lynch’s living room. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Sara Lynch, 81, has been giving piano lessons since 1967. She currently has 42 students ranging in age from 3.5 to 70.

First things first. I asked her: Is there an “h” at the end of “Sara”?

“No, I’m a four-letter word,” she tells me.

Bitten by a tick 14 years ago

With brain swelling on my mind, I wasn’t expecting that and I laughed out loud.

“With all I have lived through,” she says, “you learn to laugh at life.”

She was born in Evansville, Indiana, and learned to play piano at 4. She was a music major at Southwest Missouri State University. She came to the Ozarks because her husband was hired to join the university’s mathematics department.

The tick bite and encephalitis, also called inflammation of the brain, happened 14 years ago.

Medical info on encephalitis

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several causes of encephalitis, including being bitten by an infected tick. At times, the cause of encephalitis is unknown.

Encephalitis can be life-threatening. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are important because it’s difficult to predict how encephalitis will affect each individual, according to the clinic’s website.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encephalitis from a tick bite is rare. Most cases in the United States occur in the northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through mid-fall when ticks are most active.

Survivors of severe cases can be left with permanent problems such as fatigue, irritability, impaired concentration, seizures, hearing loss, memory loss and blindness.

The recovery process may take months to even years. Intensive rehabilitation can involve specialists in neurology, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, nutrition and neuropsychology.

She still occasionally fumbles with words

Lynch lost her ability to read the written word — and had to learn again — but never lost as much as a sixteenth note in reading, playing or teaching music.

The human brain is a mystery. There are documented cases of people who no longer can remember, for example, that there is a piano in their living room, yet can sit down and play complex songs they’ve never before heard from sheet music they’ve never seen.

Sara Lynch says that although she lost the ability to read words she never lost the ability to read music. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Lynch tells me about the bite. She was trimming a hedge in her backyard. Her 15-year-old granddaughter, whom she raised, was with her.

I ask what time of year it was and she is challenged to find the right word. She occasionally still fumbles with words.


It was during some type of school break, she says, the one week of the year when she takes a respite from piano lessons.

The word? The word? The word?

Easter break?” I ask.

That’s it.

Sara Lynch plays music at her home. (Video by Steve Pokin)

Of course, grandma gave her piano lessons

“I got bit then, on the left foot. I did not think anything of it. I took the tick off and killed him. Now, I am terrified of ticks. Before, it was just a pest.”

That granddaughter, now 29, is Olyvia Hilburn. She lives in Cassville.

Hilburn tells me Lynch raised her, home-schooled her and became her legal guardian.

And, of course, grandma taught her how to play piano.

“She is definitely a very strong and caring person,” Hilburn says. “She has spent her entire life basically taking care of kids, either raising them or teaching them piano.”

Lynch and her ex-husband Sam have four children. She and Sam are divorced.

She had to be convinced to go to hospital

The gravest consequences of the bite did not manifest for a week or two, Hilburn says.

“We thought she had the flu. Aching, feeling sick to her stomach and running a little bit of a fever.

“Then she had a Saturday morning in which she woke up and started doing her morning routine,” Hilburn recalls. “She was not really communicating very well.

“She sat in her chair with her coffee and her puzzle book and was not really doing anything. We wanted her to see a doctor.

“She said, ‘I will wait until Wednesday.'”

That was a red flag. Lynch was scrupulous about keeping weekdays free for piano lessons and for home-schooling.

Only Lynch and Hilburn lived in the house at the time.

She was ‘deteriorating very quickly’

Hilburn enlisted the help of Lynch’s sister, Esther Vandiver, who lived in Springfield at the time. She has since died.

Vandiver did the convincing and drove Lynch first to urgent care.

“I really think my grandmother was deteriorating very quickly,” Hilburn says.

She was transferred to the hospital. She was there about a week.

Sara Lynch was bitten by a tick 14 years ago. She suffered encephalitis, or swelling of the brain and had cognitive setbacks. But the 88 keys of a piano were a home turf that never left her. (Steve Pokin photo)

When she returned home, she had a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) in her arm for food and medication. Two of Lynch’s daughters came home from out of state to help with care.

Doctors did not think she would make it

Janet Gesme, 50, says the initial prognosis for her mother was grim.

Gesme, Lynch’s daughter, lives in Bend, Oregon.

First, doctors were unsure she would survive.

“She was already pretty bad,” Gesme says. “The infection was in her blood, bladder and brain.”

Even when it became clear she would live, Gesme says, Lynch did not know her own name and it was suggested she would need to reside in a care center, and that whatever improvement she would make would be limited to that first year of recovery.

Lynch refused to go to a care center because she would not be able to have a piano, Gesme says.

“They were wrong,” Gesme says. “She has continued to make significant improvement over the years since then. She has always been pretty determined, to be sure. And the piano has been a very important part of her life.”

Would say ‘piano’ when meaning ‘purse’

Hilburn offers an example of Lynch’s struggle with language.

“She would say a word that started with the right letter. She would say, ‘Go over there and get my piano and she would be pointing at her purse.

Lynch tells me she recalls a dream-like moment when she was eager to enter heaven but God told her no, it wasn’t yet time.

Reach of right hand was two keys short

“I had to learn how to live with a partial brain because I was not giving up,” Lynch says. “I am serious. I do not know how to give up. I learned how to read English again.”

In addition, since the left side of her brain sustained damage the right side of her body bore the brunt. She toiled to regain close-to-full range of her right hand and right leg.

Her right hand, she says, initially was about two keys short of where it needed to go.

“I worked the dickens out of my right hand and it knows what it is supposed to do now.”

14 years later, she cannot remember names

Still, 14 years later, she has little to no recall of names, whether of people or streets.

“I know my students. I know exactly how they played last week. But the names are not there. Names of people. Names of streets.”

I ask if she would remember me if I knocked on her door again in a week.

“I would recognize your face and I would recognize your voice but I would not remember your name,” she says.

The inability to recall street names has led to her decision not to drive about the city.

Springfield has changed so much that many familiar landmarks are gone, she says.

She doubts she could manage a smartphone that could provide directions.

“It is hard to lose something that was once easy,” she says.

‘Music has stayed with her the whole way’

Another residual effect is that she can no longer play music and process language at the same time.

In the past, she could listen or converse while playing the piano. Now, it takes so much processing power for her to comprehend words that she cannot play simultaneously.

Through the hardship, Hilburn says, music has been steadfast at her grandmother’s side.

“Music is the one thing that really stuck with her,” she says.

Her grandmother’s favorite genre is classical and one of her most beloved piano pieces is “Moonlight Sonata, Third Movement,” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

“It is insanely difficult to learn yet she sits down and plays it without even thinking,” Hilburn says.

This is Pokin Around column No. 61.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin