Musicians, like skilled surgeons, have the power to heal—something Phuong D. Nguyen, MD, FACS, FAAP, understands well as a pediatric plastic and craniofacial surgeon and lead singer and guitarist for the indie rock band, Help The Doctor.
As the front man of a band comprised entirely of “surgeons who rock,” Dr. Nguyen has achieved some modest acclaim on social media, but it was after he performed with Demi Lovato as part of a virtual chorus of musicians at a 2021 inauguration day celebration that he gained national attention. Wearing his daily uniform of surgical scrubs, Dr. Nguyen, chief of pediatric plastic surgery, University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth), Houston, performed backup for Ms. Lovato’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”
Dr. Nguyen was asked by the presidential inauguration committee to virtually participate in the live 90-minute, prime-time inauguration special, which aired January 20 on network and cable news channels and via the committee’s social media feeds.
“At first, I thought the invitation to perform was spam. I almost hit delete,” recalled Dr. Nguyen, whose clinical interests include facial reanimation, cleft repair, and craniofacial reconstruction. “As it turned out, they were looking for stories of hope and people coming together. And, as I learned later, the invitation was targeted toward health care workers and people on the front lines.”
With the help of videographers from UTHealth, Dr. Nguyen filmed his rendition of “Lovely Day” for the special, which also featured other performers from across the U.S. providing backup to Ms. Lovato’s vocals. The television special, called Celebrating America and hosted by actor Tom Hanks, also featured appearances by John Legend and Justin Timberlake, among others, and included remarks by President Joseph Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, who were sworn in earlier that day. The traditional parade, inaugural balls, and other events that typically commemorate a presidential inauguration were canceled because of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Though we are inundated with media in this day and age, it was still very much a surreal feeling watching this national broadcast on simultaneous networks and seeing myself pop up in front of the president. I had butterflies in my stomach; I guess this is as close as it’ll come to waiting to hear my name called out at the Grammys!” Dr. Nguyen said.
Dr. Nguyen’s invitation to perform at the inauguration day bash was sparked by the song titled “Stay at Home,” which he wrote and performed with his Help The Doctor bandmates in March 2020.
Dr. Nguyen owns several guitars, but he selected a custom guitar made by luthier Rick Kelly to play at the inaugural concert. “Much to my wife’s chagrin, I have 10 guitars. It’s a constant negotiation, but I have a very forgiving wife. As for that specific guitar, it’s important to know that Rick hand-makes his instruments from the bones of New York City—from discarded and reclaimed wood from really famous spots like the Chelsea Hotel. This particular guitar came from Chumley’s, a speakeasy from the turn of the century. Ernest Hemingway used to drink there; Bob Dylan was there through the ’50s and ’60s, so it has all of this history soaked up in it.”
Playing the Rick Kelly guitar at the inauguration celebration also was a nod of respect to New York, NY, which has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. “I think it was definitely symbolic in that sense, too. New York has such a history of tragedy and resilience. And for me, personally, I was in residency from 2004 to 2011 at New York University Medical Center, and I remember living through the aftermath of 9/11.”
“Stay at home”
Dr. Nguyen’s invitation to perform at the inauguration day festivities was sparked by the song titled “Stay at Home,” which he wrote and performed with his Help The Doctor bandmates in March 2020. The video for the song features physicians from across the U.S. in scrubs and masks singing lyrics that underscore the importance of sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea for writing and recording “Stay at Home” came from a fan’s Facebook comment, urging Dr. Nguyen to harness the band’s name—Help The Doctor—into a message of collaboration and support for physicians battling COVID-19. Heeding the call to action, Dr. Nguyen wrote “Stay at Home” in about an hour.
“In late March of 2020, we were still very much on the upswing of COVID-19, and there was so much that we didn’t really know. And we were going down a pretty slippery slope, where a lot of physicians were being repurposed to take care of COVID-19 patients. For instance, plastic surgeons who haven’t done intensive care in quite a while were being repurposed to help take care and share the load, and everyone was really chipping in. From a public service standpoint, we wanted to increase awareness that this was something real and getting significantly worse.”
Dr. Nguyen arranged the track in his self-described “little” home studio before sending it to band members, all of whom now reside in different cities.
Help The Doctor originally formed in 2012 while members were training at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) medical campus. “P. Danger” is the lead singer and stage name for Dr. Nguyen; Robby “Rip Towns” Kang, MD, MPH, plays guitar and keyboards, performs backup vocals, and is a head-and-neck facial plastic reconstructive surgeon, City of Hope Cancer Center, Duarte, CA; Jason Roostaeian, MD, “J. Roost,” plays bass and is a plastic surgeon, UCLA Medical Center; and Solomon Poyourow, MD, DDS, MPH, “Sol Power,” plays drums and is an oral-maxillofacial surgeon, Alamitos Oral Surgery, Los Alamitos, CA.
“I’ve always had a passion for music and have been playing semiprofessionally for over two decades,” said Dr. Nguyen, who became a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 2016.
Dr. Nguyen started writing music before medical school, picking up his first guitar in 1993. Today, he has nine albums under his belt. Recording and playing music is more than a creative outlet for Dr. Nguyen—it’s a way to foster resilience, especially during the challenging conditions associated with the pandemic.
“Particularly in medicine, and specifically in surgery, there are a lot of stresses that come with the job,” he said. “And what I find going through residency and practice with colleagues is the fact that when the stresses become almost overwhelming, we all need something to rely on to brace and ground ourselves. For me, it’s music, which is a way to process emotions and current events and an expression of something that maybe I couldn’t do verbally.”
Dr. Nguyen said many of the students he interviews for surgical programs have a high level of interest in the creative arts. “The first thing I tell them is, ‘Please don’t ignore these interests because you’re going to need them as you go along.’”
Access to role models who embrace well-being is key for the younger generation of surgeons, according to Dr. Nguyen, although some senior surgeons may resist engaging in outside interests, preferring to focus almost exclusively on patient care.
“The weight of what we do on a day-to-day basis often overshadows any type of space that you make for your own personal growth and health, and that’s a paradigm shift. For the older generation, I think it’s more difficult because no one is going to tell them, ‘This is okay. You can do this.’ Surgeons need to step back and give themselves permission to spend a few hours on a weekend just doing something that makes them happy, something that doesn’t necessarily involve work,” Dr. Nguyen said.
Performing before the newly elected president was a profound moment for Dr. Nguyen, a first-generation American, whose family left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1979. His family escaped on a tiny fishing boat with scant supplies, his mother pregnant with Dr. Nguyen. After living off of rainwater for nearly a week, a Conoco oil tanker miraculously crossed paths with the boat and transported the family to an Indonesian refugee camp. Eventually, Dr. Nguyen’s family managed to immigrate to the U.S., setting down roots in Minnesota.
“I grew up for the first 20-odd years of my life in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. It’s a very distinct experience to grow up as a first-generation immigrant in the U.S. There was one other Vietnamese kid growing up and there was one African-American kid—it was a relatively homogenous environment. And that definitely affects how you perceive your place in the world, when people don’t sound like you, they don’t have your name and to be perfectly honest, there were certainly bouts of racism growing up. And how do you get out of that and have any level of confidence that you’re going to make something of yourself?” he said.
Dr. Nguyen said getting a good education combined with his parents’ devotion to service and giving back to the community helped steer his pathway through medical school and beyond.
While at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Dr. Nguyen cold called a pediatrician who was doing medical mission work in Vietnam, which led to his first experience visiting his home country. “I had so many overwhelming emotions, as you can imagine. It was a way to reconcile what it meant to look the way I did and the blood that coursed through my veins with living a completely different life in Minnesota.”
“The last thing they said to me as I left as an honestly know-nothing medical student was, ‘You know, when you go learn something, make sure you come back and teach us.’ And fast-forward to today, and I now go to Vietnam annually to the very same children’s hospital, Vietnam National Children’s Hospital [VNCH].” VNCH, located in Hanoi City, is the largest pediatric hospital in North Vietnam and provides services to approximately 40 million people.
Nuoy: A sustainable humanitarian initiative
In an effort to enhance collaboration among humanitarian groups in Southeast Asia, Dr. Nguyen, along with Julien Klaudt-Moreau, MPH, founded Nuoy Reconstructive International (Nuoy) in December 2019. Dr. Nguyen describes Nuoy (named after a Vietnamese term for feeding, nourishing, and sheltering) as an evolution of the Reconstructive International Cooperative Exchange, with an enhanced focus on education, research, and partnerships.
Dr. Nguyen describes Nuoy (named after a Vietnamese term for feeding, nourishing, and sheltering) as an evolution of the Reconstructive International Cooperative Exchange, with an enhanced focus on education, research, and partnerships.
“Nuoy is based on a lot of what we’ve witnessed as far as pitfalls, but also successes. Part of it is actually doing surgery—I think that’s always going to be a cornerstone. But the idea with our program is not necessarily to teach a man to fish, but to go fishing together. And to do that, you really require some buy-in from both parties,” he said.
Developing and supporting international humanitarian programs that are sustainable should include an assessment of gaps in care and needs onsite, although a lack of transparency and poor communication can sometimes impede this goal.
“I’ll give you an example,” Dr. Nguyen said. “At VNCH, someone had graciously donated a da Vinci robot, which is a $1 million-plus robot. Well, that’s fantastic, but guess how often that gets used? In the meantime, my colleagues are asking me for access to basic digital publications or books just so they can read and get educated. I remember thinking, what is the cost of a subscription to PubMed or a journal as opposed to a da Vinci robot? So, I think there’s sometimes a gross miscalculation of what is actually needed and where the resources go.”
Nuoy’s focus on developing partnerships with other humanitarian programs has resulted in memorandums of understanding outlining a collaborative approach to research, database development, and educational conferences. This approach also has led to diminished duplicative efforts, particularly regarding surgery. (For additional information, visit Nuoy Reconstructive International.)
“We would be working in an operating room and next door would be another group from a different country, who would come and target the same patient population,” Dr. Nguyen said. “For a multitude of reasons, we didn’t know that they were there, and our hosts weren’t necessarily very telling about the other programs, as well. So, the idea with Nuoy is to create some level of transparency so that we can actually work together with other organizations in a way that ultimately benefits the patients. For example, if I have to put a distractor in a patient, usually those things come out after several months. Well, if I’m not back in a year, that kid hangs out with that device for a year unnecessarily. So, why wouldn’t another group that we communicate with be able to do that in a more timely fashion?”
Dr. Nguyen’s dual passions—medicine and music—continue to drive his mission to heal, support, and educate others.
He urges surgeons to continue to embrace activities that mitigate burnout and enhance well-being, particularly during the pandemic. He also hopes the shelter-in-place message of “Stay at Home” will continue to resonate with audiences.
When asked what his follow-up to “Stay at Home” would be, he said, without missing a beat, “There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel.”