'Cathartic': Musician Doctors Help Patients and Themselves

Jodi Cash

July 14, 2023

Exhausted by a particularly tough ob-gyn rotation away from home, then-med student Tara Rajendran returned to her hostel in Karnataka, India, and collapsed on the floor. She spotted her veena, the seven-stringed, 24-fretted national instrument of India that she'd played since she was a young girl. She noticed it had a coating of dust. She wiped it off and began to play.

Its transcendent, humming vibrations, most harmonically akin to a human voice, flowed through her. "I felt really calm," she says. "It was cathartic, a sudden release of a lot of stress from my body. The lump in my throat dissolved suddenly. And that was an eye-opening experience."

Tara Rajendren, MBBS: Taps the connection between music and healing.

Playing music and practicing medicine have been intertwined for centuries. Some practitioners are geniuses, such as French flutist Rene Laennec, who carved a long wooden tube into the first stethoscope in 1816. But most of the many medical professionals coming to medicine with a background in music just love to play.

They are complementary passions. Both require discipline, practice, attention to detail, intuitiveness, commitment, and determination. And both reward a desire to improve.

What's perhaps less appreciated is what music does for doctors and nurses who continue to play. It can be a vital emotional outlet as well as an empathy builder, giving healthcare providers relief and instilling deeper satisfaction from a career that's all about caring for others.

"Inherent in what we do is sadness and frustration and helplessness and really tough feelings. And there's nothing that's going to get around that," says Suzanne Brown Sacks, MD, a cardiologist and songwriter. "If you try and not feel it, then you won't be a good doctor. If you stop caring, that's when you need to do something else."

Catching the Songwriting Bug

Brown Sacks — known onstage as Suzie Brown — has found that her life revolves around matters of the heart.

"Suzie Brown": the heart doctor sings her heart out.

Music brought her a sense of relief and self-expression, even before she really knew what she was feeling or why. "I've always been drawn to these folk songs with longing and sadness," she says. "And I remember, as a kid, Carol King's 'So Far Away,'... I mean, I didn't know romance. I was in, like, second grade."

Brown Sacks pursued a medical path but still made space for music. In residency, she sang with fellow healthcare professionals (mostly orthopedic surgeons) in a cover band called Rod the Long Bone. Later in Philadelphia, she did her cardiology fellowship, followed by a master's degree in translational research, and began writing songs and performing at open mic nights.

"It was a place for me to show my vulnerability, whereas in medicine, I always looked really young. I was a female cardiologist, and I was always fighting to be taken seriously," she says.

Aside from giving her space to feel, music challenged Brown Sacks' assumptions about what it means to be a doctor. Did she have to wear a white coat all day, every day, in order to properly care for her patients? Or might she provide better care if she also focused on something else that gave her life meaning?

Through music, she began to find those answers.

"Once I wrote that first song, I just kept writing more and more. I kept going back to the open mic night, and pretty soon it was clear to me that I just had to have time for this," she says.

After her marriage to a fellow songwriter, Brown Sacks discovered the songwriting scene in Nashville and fell in love with Music City, USA. She cold-called Vanderbilt's cardiology department to ask for a job. Before she knew it, she was on her way to Nashville to be a part-time heart failure specialist. Her other part-time job? Singer-songwriter.

Music as Medicine

Rajendran kept her veena experience in mind when she traveled to the US for more clinical rotations. While at Harvard Medical School, her mentor, radiation oncologist Anthony D'Amico, MD, encouraged her to study the intersection of music and medicine, particularly within oncology and palliative care.

"That was like a whole window opening up in front of me," she says. Over the months that followed, she collaborated with music therapists and MDs across the US, exploring how the relief that had always been available to her through music might translate for her patients.

While on another rotation at Stanford, she launched Oncology & Strings – one-part concert, one-part lecture series. The program advocates for the use of music to bring patients calm, better sleep, and a higher quality of life, especially when suffering from a disease as torturous as cancer.

Rajendran is now back in India pursuing a PhD in music and touring the country with Oncology & Strings, performing for doctors, nurses, counselors, caregivers, and patients. To reach more patients and caregivers, she recorded herself playing the veena and, with the help of NGOs and palliative care centers affiliated with her Oncology & Strings program, distributed the music for free.

"I thought, why not provide music, which is copyright free for patients and caregivers, whoever wants to play it in their hospital or in their setting?" she says. "Through that, we have almost reached around 10,000 patients."

Patient Stories That Endure

Brent Hedrick, RN, played music long before he began working in healthcare. Raised in the musical town of Athens, Georgia, where he now works in the post-anesthesia care unit at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital, he'd played drums in various bands since he was a teenager. That remained true even through nursing school and his first job in the ER. But when COVID-19 hit, his bands couldn't get together anymore, and he had to change his formula.

Brent Hendrick, RN: "I needed [music] more than ever."

"There was no practice and no music happening right when I needed it more than ever. I'd always monkeyed around on guitar, and suddenly that was all I had," he says. "Nursing through COVID was a nightmare, and I needed some way to get it all out."

As Hendrick slipped dangerously towards burnout, he started writing songs. "Inevitably, nursing involves talking to patients, and I take a lot of stories from the people that I meet," he says. "When people are vulnerable, they tend to kind of spill their guts. It's a gift that they trust you with that."

Hendrick's solo project is called Poor Historians, a nod to the patients who inspire his music.

His most heartrending song, "Drifted Apart," tells the story of a high school kid who remembers an older sibling who died. It was inspired by a particularly painful story a patient told Hendrick about losing his son to suicide and how he would lie on the floor where the body was found.

Summer has gone, and the fall nearly too.

I'm watching the mail for a letter from you.

Momma's a mess, the apples won't grow.

Too hot by far, daddy's drinking and low.

I lay in your bed like I seen you before,

I imagine somehow you're hearing my voice

But I ain't heard from you, it's stupid I guess

I'm here in your t-shirt, your bed and your mess.

"You can't help but carry that story," says Hedrick.

Self-Expression Builds Teamwork

Beyond better care for patients, music might make it possible for doctors to better care for one another. At a critical time when physician burnout is on the rise, Daniel Barnes, DO, internist and president of FirstHealth Physician Group in Pinehurst, North Carolina, is finding that music gives him the tools to handle a big job. "It's critical," he says, "the ability just to be able to express yourself and to see others enjoy what you're doing. It's very fulfilling."

Dan Barnes, DO: The doc rocks.

Barnes oversees 340 providers, including hospital-based practices and 80 clinics across seven counties, and he's also responsible for post-acute care services. Music helps him handle the pressure.

Barnes is the singer for two bands with punny names, House Call and Doc Rock. House Call is a five-piece band featuring a physician's assistant on guitar. Doc Rock is his acoustic duo with a guitar-playing PhD. Both play energetic covers of classic rock and oldie favorites that their audiences call out as requests.

Getting together with his bandmates and playing is when Barnes stops thinking about the challenges of running healthcare practices.

"It's a key to resilience," he says. "Especially over the last 3 years, a lot of what we do is recognizing and dealing with folks suffering from burnout. I need to do everything in my power to make sure that I'm not a victim of that as well."

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