Music and medicine: How one cardiologist found peace in song

AMA Wire
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Being a physician requires a level of altruism unlike that in any other profession. Burying emotions under a facade of heroism—for the sake of treating patients—often becomes a standard in practice, and Suzie Brown, MD, knew such emotional suppression was draining her wellness. So she began writing songs—and they’ve made a difference. The cardiologist-songwriter recently performed at TEDMED2015. Here’s how she says music restored her self-awareness and strengthened her relationships with patients.

The “stoic” life of the physician

“Just this past Saturday night, I was up the entire night taking care of a patient who had become very sick in the intensive care unit,” Dr. Brown said. “It didn’t matter that I’m eight months pregnant or that I had just worked six 12-hour days in a row and had to be back at work the next day. Or that I had been up the six previous nights with our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter who is currently teething—none of that really mattered. What mattered was that this patient needed my care and attention, and my priority was to give it to her.”

Although well-intentioned, Dr. Brown said this kind of “stoicism” prevailed throughout her cardiology training and caused her to continually put patients before her own needs, which became difficult to maintain.

“By the time I finished my training as a cardiologist, I felt emotionally exhausted,” she said. “I began to seek out music as a place where I could show my vulnerability, a place where I could be honest about what I was really feeling. I found that making music made me feel more balanced and more at peace than I ever had before.”

Finding joy in music and medicine

Seven years later, what began as catharsis has become a way of life for Dr. Brown. She works part-time as a heart failure and cardiac transplant specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and writes and performs songs with her husband Scott.

“Showing my vulnerability through music has made me a better doctor,” Dr. Brown said, noting that music has improved her self-awareness and ability to create sincere emotional connections with patients.

The emotions she once suppressed in practice—the same ones that often lead so many talented physicians to depression, cynicism and burnout—have now touched the hearts of thousands in her 2011 debut album Heartstrings, which has been featured at Starbucks, the Gap and Anthropologie. Her second album, Almost There, was funded entirely by her fans.

Watch Dr. Brown’s official music video for her single, “Almost There” (right), and enjoy more of her music on her artist page

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Oct 21, 2016
A program at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine helps spot people at risk of suicide and depression through self-assessment and offers access to counseling for UCSD medical students, residents, fellows and faculty.