They are surgeons engaged in a pressure-cooker of a profession, but they also believe in the magical powers of rock and roll.
Consider the case of the four surgeons, all partners and friends, three plastic surgeons and one vascular surgeon, at the Plastic Surgery Center and the Institute for Advanced Reconstruction in Shrewsbury, NJ. Most days, these surgeons treat devastating trauma injuries, reconstruct breasts and nerves, and perform limb reattachments. Once every two or three months, though, they put down their scalpels, grab their guitar picks and drumsticks, and turn their attention to their rock band, Cell Division.
The band—whose members all played in teenage garage bands—performs covers, mainly of classic rock songs. Cell Division has three guitarists: Matthew R. Kaufman, MD, FACS, a head and neck specialist; Michael I. Rose, MD, FACS, a plastic surgeon with a special interest in peripheral nerve surgery, including neuropathy decompressions; and Andrew I. Elkwood, MD, FACS, who specializes in nerve reconstruction. Dr. Rose is also chief of the division of plastic surgery at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Neptune. Dr. Kaufman is one of the few surgeons in the world who performs phrenic nerve surgery.
Keeping a steady beat on the drums is Jonathan M. Weiswasser, MD, FACS, a vascular surgeon who is also the band’s driving force. Dr. Weiswasser, a diehard Rolling Stones fan, grew up appreciating British-influenced rock music and American blues. As he took on the serious business of becoming a surgeon, music assumed a secondary role in his life. “During my residency and fellowship and then clinical work, my music was idle,” he said. But as he got more settled in his life and surgical practice, “the music bug hit me again,” he said, and he began the process of forming a band. He plays the drums for a number of bands in addition to Cell Division, including an Eagles tribute band called Eaglemania, which has performed shows in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and parts of the Midwest. Next on Eaglemania’s agenda is a show in Los Angeles, CA, and possibly a tour of Japan.
Dr. Weiswasser is plugged into the larger rock scene, and he has interacted with some of the world’s most celebrated rock musicians, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and the Foo Fighters’ multi-instrumentalist Dave Grohl. Dr. Weiswasser also plays an active role in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, OH, and is on the ballot to become a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors.
“You would be surprised that the rock-and-roll musicians I know are just normal people,” Dr. Weiswasser said. “They come to my house for tea and coffee,” he added. “They’re very concerned about their health, and they’re very interested in what I do as a surgeon.”
The interest is mutual, and the surgeons benefit from their connections to professional musicians. The surgeons also happily note the positive response to the band from their patients. “Cell Division brings a human element to our surgical practice,” said Dr. Rose, whose expertise lies in nerve decompression. “Patients come to the office, and next to the diplomas on the wall, they see a picture of the four band members with our arms around each other. All of a sudden, I’m a human being.”
It opens up communication, he said, and helps the practice connect with the local community. “What’s amazing to me is that I’ve saved patients’ arms and legs. We’ve all done some pretty miraculous things with trauma injuries, but most of the feedback from patients is about the band,” he said. “There’s something about the whole musician thing that people go wild over. Someone actually asked for my autograph, which very much amused me.”
Three of the band members met during their residency at New York University School of Medicine, which, Dr. Rose said, “was a tough program, and we had to work very, very hard. A lot was expected of us, and I think we learned to watch each other’s backs. That is why our friendship has endured.” Dr. Kaufman joined the practice after his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, NY.
Dr. Rose serves on the Cancer Support Community (CSC) Central New Jersey Board, and Cell Division’s first performance was for a charitable event on behalf of the local branch of CSC, a global organization that provides emotional and practical support and education to people affected by cancer. The crowd reacted with loud approval as Cell Division rocked the Wonder Bar, a popular club in Asbury Park. The positive response to their music exhilarated the band members.
“I brought a friend of mine, Earl Slick—a big name in his own right—to that first performance. He once played lead guitar for David Bowie and John Lennon,” Dr. Weiswasser said. “I cajoled Earl into coaching the guys,” Dr. Weiswasser said.
“Earl Slick is one of the nicest people on earth,” said Dr. Rose. “He helped us arrange the songs in a way that would make us all sound better. He’s a perfectionist and pointed out all the little things we could do to improve our sound, like the way the amplifier is adjusted and getting the timing right.”
Cell Division members opted to forgo the traditional black tie affair to raise money for cancer patients and instead created a Battle of the Doctors’ Bands. The two events raised more than $20,000, and, thanks largely to Mr. Slick’s mentoring, Cell Division won the battle both years.
Becoming a rock band is a natural progression for Cell Division, and it’s not that big a stretch, according to Dr. Rose. He carries with him a lesson he learned from a former professor, that there are three activities that add up to a fulfilling human life: Use your brain. Use your hands. Help other people.
“That’s why we became surgeons. We use our hands and our brains, and we have this fundamental drive to help people,” he said. Performing music before an appreciative audience, he added, satisfies the same needs.
No Evidence of Disease (N.E.D.)
Members of N.E.D. first counted gynecologic oncologists among their fevered base of fans.
“We had all gathered in 2008 for a professional meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology, and the leaders wanted to know if entertainment could be provided by the membership. So, they asked a few of us to create a band. We came from different areas around the country, but we all kind of knew each other,” said N.E.D. bass and harmonica player William R. Robinson, MD, FACS, professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, department of obstetrics and gynecology, section of gynecologic oncology, Tulane Medical Center, New Orleans, LA.
The band members, a mix of six surgeons, became more intimately acquainted as they assumed their places on the rock-and-roll stage. Other gynecologic oncologist members of the band are John F. Boggess, MD, clinical research and gynecologic oncology program, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, and associate professor, UNC (vocals, guitar); Joanie M. Hope, MD, founder and managing partner, Alaska Women’s Cancer Care, Anchorage (vocals); Nimesh P. Nagarsheth, MD, director of gynecologic oncology and associate director of robotic surgery, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York, NY (drums, percussion); John T. Soper, MD, professor, division of gynecologic oncology, University of North Carolina Health Care, Chapel Hill (guitar); and William Winter III, MD, Compass Oncology, Portland, OR (guitar).
Playing in a band posed all-new challenges for these surgeons, but their first live performance and subsequent success as a band are the stuff of rock-and-roll dreams. After only one rehearsal, the members performed in front of the gynecologic oncology audience, and the response was electric. “We started getting requests from other groups,” said Dr. Robinson. A record label, Motéma Music, a company based in New York, NY, that focuses on jazz and world music, heard about the band and approached the members with the idea of recording a benefit CD, with proceeds going to a foundation for women’s cancer. Mario McNulty, a Grammy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer at Motéma, led the band through the recording process, and in about a week, they produced their first CD.
In November 2009, the release of the group’s first CD, consisting entirely of original songs, coincided with Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, and it sold more than 6,000 copies. Some of the songs relate to their own surgeon-patient experiences; others are songs about life and love. The band works hard to make good music, but the overriding goal of N.E.D. is to raise public awareness of gynecologic cancers, promote early detection, and support promising research.
“Most of our music is about gynecologic cancer, a subject that people don’t want to talk about,” Dr. Robinson said. “A cancer diagnosis is not easy. As a surgeon, you don’t like to have to see good people suffer.” A cancer diagnosis is a strain on everyone, he said: the patient, the patient’s friends and family members, and the surgeon. Dr. Robinson said that playing in a band provides welcome relief from the stress of treating cancer. “We rehearse virtually, and mix it all together for performances and the CD,” Dr. Robinson explained. Audio mixing technology allows the band to continue creating music while each member continues to conduct a busy surgical practice.
“We are considered adult contemporary and alternative rock,” Dr. Robinson said, “but we got charted on country stations.” Then the band produced its second CD, this one even more quickly than the first, and it sold roughly 5,000 copies. Most proceeds from the sale of their CDs go directly to the N.E.D. fund of the Foundation for Women’s Cancer.
Nicole Strang, an ovarian and uterine cancer survivor and a social media expert, attended a local ovarian cancer walk in Raleigh, NC, in 2009, when she noticed a booth selling N.E.D. CDs. After attending one of the band’s concerts, she was sold on them. “The music is as important as the message,” she said. “The audience completely loved them. I began begging the band to let me help them with their social media.” N.E.D. now depends mightily on Ms. Strang, who volunteers to work around the schedules of the six surgeons and bring them all together, either for concerts or for recording new music for CDs. She also handles the sale and distribution of N.E.D. merchandise, including a logo and t-shirts.
“All of the surgeons have been involved in music their whole lives,” Ms. Strang said. “When you watch them on stage putting their heart into each performance, you realize that they’re getting as much enjoyment from it as their audience is.”
View N.E.D. on YouTube. To learn more about the band, check out the group’s Facebook page , or the group’s website.
In Erie, PA, a group of health care professionals/musicians have branded themselves as “Health Care with Attitude” and brashly call their band Malpractice. The band, which plays cover songs from the 1980s through the 2000s, includes the melodic sound of lead singer, general and trauma surgeon David W. Dexter, MD, FACS, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Hamot, and medical director of Great Lakes Surgical Specialists in Erie. Dr. Dexter is an American College of Surgeons (ACS) Governor who represents the Northwestern Pennsylvania Chapter of the ACS and is a member of the Governors’ Chapter Activities Domestic Workgroup.
“We’ve been together about two years now. Every summer UPMC Hamot has a big picnic for all its employees, and uses a deejay for entertainment,” Dr. Dexter said, explaining the band’s origin. ”During a discussion with a hospital administrator, we decided it would be great if we could find providers who worked at the hospital interested in forming a band. The original thought was that we would play limited and specific functions and events only.”
Malpractice played its first gig only one year ago, but within a short time, the band has emerged as a significant rock band in the Erie region. The band’s members are Paul Mirone, MD, family medicine, guitar and vocals; Jeff Larson, CRNP, bass and vocals; Mike Marino, lead guitar, guitar instructor, musical instrument/professional audio sales, and whose wife is a Hamot nurse; and Rob Chandler, DO, family medicine, drums and vocals. The band has signed up for new gigs at many local venues and is currently booked through November 2014.
“We do it for fun and never dreamed that we would be doing this many performances,” Dr. Dexter said. In August 2013, the band enjoyed its biggest break. They performed at a yacht club next door to a popular bar. The bar owner liked what he heard and hired the band to play on Halloween and New Year’s Eve as well as for three summer shows.
For Dr. Dexter, the band represents a lifetime of musical interest. “I sang in a professional boys’ choir, starting at age eight,” he said. “I had extensive voice training, and one way or another, I always find my way back to music.” Music is an integral part of his family life too. His daughter is a singer and was the opening act for the first Malpractice show, and his son plays saxophone and drums. His wife attends all the performances and offers a critical eye and encouragement.
Dr. Dexter, who thoroughly enjoys performing before a live audience, is convinced that being involved with the band makes him a more well-rounded person and, therefore, brings balance to his stressful surgical life. “It would be a stretch to say it makes me a better surgeon,” he said. “But I think it does help to have this life away from work that I enjoy so much.”
Malpractice is an eclectic group whose members represent different age groups and musical tastes. “We’re at different stages of life, but we spend a lot of time together, and we enjoy each other’s company. We have become great friends. We enjoy discussing the songs we like and deciding what music to play,” Dr. Dexter said. The band is for fun—but it also raises funds for charity, including the Howard Hanna Children’s Free Care Fund. They performed at Howard Hanna’s annual Choo Choo Chow Chow Fundraising Campaign, where food and door prizes provided by Erie businesses raises money for the local Shriners Hospital. Howard Hanna Real Estate Services in Erie has sponsored the fundraising drive for 25 years, raising, in total, more than $8.3 million for local hospitals. The band also raises money for the Erie-based John Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation. This foundation, which works to raise awareness and the potential for cancer research through human trials, supports ongoing research for the Kanzius Noninvasive Radiowave Cancer Treatment project, a cancer treatment without side effects.
“I have to say that all the band members are very excited and very happy about the way things have turned out,” Dr. Dexter said. “We’re just having fun with it. Someday it will have to end, but we’re not thinking about that now.”
For more information, including videos of Malpractice performances, visit the group’s Facebook page.
Reprieve from OR pressures
Surgeons experience the full range of human challenges and emotions every day. Even in their pressure-filled, hectic lives, some surgeons have discovered, as rock superstar Bruce Springsteen regularly proclaims, “the power, the glory, and the ministry of rock and roll.”