07:00 AM

Renowned Concert Pianist "Reborn" After Hand Surgery Restores His Career… and His Life

For a concert pianist, his hands are his life, and when Misha Dichter developed a debilitating condition affecting his hands, it was life-shattering. But after two successful surgeries, the world-renowned virtuoso recently returned to Carnegie Hall for his first major solo performance in New York in almost two decades.

His surgeon, Dr. Scott Wolfe, chief emeritus of the Hand and Upper Extremity Service at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), was in the audience. Mesmerized by the music, Dr. Wolfe marveled at the way the virtuoso’s hands raced across the piano keys.

Mr. Dichter won the silver medal in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow while a student at Julliard in 1966, and a brilliant career ensued. In 2005, he noticed a small lump in the palm of his right hand. By 2006, he found he could no longer play the opening of a Brahms ballade. A visit to a hand specialist and subsequent diagnosis struck fear in his heart.

He had the same disease that had affected his father: Dupuytren’s contracture. The condition, which has a strong genetic component, causes the tissue in the palm of the hand to thicken and tighten, forcing the fingers to curl inward. Over time, as the disease progresses, people may not be able to straighten their fingers at all.

Mr. Dichter thought of his father and the two botched surgeries that failed to correct the problem. "They left his fingers on both hands terribly deformed," he recalls, "they looked like forks."

The first hand specialist recommended that Mr. Dichter take a "wait and see" approach. But "wait and see was not working," he explains, "since I couldn’t play half of the musical pieces I used to be able to play. I realized I had to do something."

After conducting some research and talking to friends, he found Dr. Wolfe at HSS, who told him about a surgical procedure that could correct the problem. "Dupuytren’s contracture is one of the most common conditions hand surgeons treat," Dr. Wolfe notes. "In advanced stages, it can be severely debilitating. People are unable to wash their face, hold a glass of water or shake someone’s hand. When correcting the problem surgically, it’s better to have the procedure sooner rather than later."

Understandably, Mr. Dichter approached the thought of surgery with a great deal of trepidation. "Remembering my father’s situation and the doctor at the other hospital telling me 'let’s just leave it alone for a while,' I was afraid, but I had to make a radical change. To stop playing the piano would destroy me as a person, and Dr. Wolfe inspired confidence."

In an intricate two and a half hour surgery, Dr. Wolfe removed the excess tissue in Mr. Dichter’s hand, carefully protecting the surrounding blood vessels, nerves and tendons.

He had his first surgery on his right hand in March 2007, and it was a success. After weeks of intense physical therapy, he was back to practicing and later, back in concert. He could resume playing duets with his wife, Cipa, an acclaimed pianist in her own right. At the recent Carnegie Hall concert, she joined him for duets by Schubert and Copland, and they often play the piano together at home.  

Dr. Wolfe and Mr. Dichter are now good friends. However, when Mr. Dichter first went for a consultation in 2007, his physician didn’t realize he’d be operating on an acclaimed virtuoso. Still, there was an immediate connection between them, Dr. Wolfe recalls. "I believe there was an unconscious recognition of the parallels of our two professions and, more importantly, a mutual respect for the critical link of our hands and our worlds," he says. "For both the musician and the surgeon, an impairment of their hands has a profound impact on the very core of their being."

Years later, the disease struck Mr. Dichter’s other hand, and Dr. Wolfe performed another successful surgery in September 2016.

Dr. Wolfe often attends his patient’s concerts, and Misha Dicthter says he feels like a "pianist reborn" thanks to the surgery. "Every day I’m grateful to Scott Wolfe. When I see him in the audience, I know it’s going to go well."