Physicians fight burnout one gig at a time

April 9, 2019

As a growing number of healthcare providers are feeling burned out, two physicians have found a way to recharge through music.

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about how some physicians are coping with the stress of physician burnout and giving back to the community.]

Soham Roy, MD, used two of his favorite talents at a bar one night. The Houston ENT resuscitated a woman who was choking on her own vomit, and then, moments later, took the stage to play driving, energetic cover songs on his bass guitar.

Usually, there’s less life-saving when Roy performs. But his performances do help this full-time physician and part-time musician continue practicing medicine to the best of his ability.

Being a physician is a stress-filled, high-pressure profession. And it can often be depressing. As a result, more than half of physicians are reporting feelings of burnout.

Conventional wisdom says to choose a career where work doesn’t feel like work. Maybe there should be an addendum to that advice: Find a passion you enjoy as much as your career as a way of beating the blues and the burnout. And don’t give up that passion, especially if you’re stressed or don’t think you have the time.

For some physicians, that passion is rocking out as members of part-time musical groups that play shows before friends and strangers. Two such physician musicians say medical doctors need those outside hobbies to be well-balanced physicians - and people. They say having that release makes them more empathetic, more alert, and ultimately better caregivers for their patients.

“Every physician I know, they either tell you they have a passion or a hobby outside of their profession or they tell you they used to, but they don’t do it anymore,” says Soham Roy, MD. “To those people I say: Pick those things back up. Find a passion you believe in as much as you believe in your career, because it will fulfill parts of your life that aren’t being fulfilled right now.”

 

Will Winter, guitar hero

Will Winter, MD, was planning to move to Los Angeles and become a rock star after graduating high school. He’d started playing guitar at age 11, and the siren song of guitar godhood beckoned him.

But he never actually answered the call. Eventually, he realized he wanted more than a life of ramen noodles and going from gig to gig just to get by. He wanted financial stability, and the odds of attaining that in a band were tiny, no matter how good he was with his six string.

Plus, he met a girl.

So, Winter went to Northwestern State University and the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Winter played in bands during college and medical school, pausing only during his fellowship.

Now, he’s a gynecological oncologist in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., with Legacy Medical Group. And that girl he was dating is now his wife of 20 years. He’s also a guitarist for N.E.D., which stands for “no evidence of disease,” words every cancer patient wants to hear.

The band, which focuses on creating and increasing awareness of gynecological cancers, is comprised of four (formerly five) male and one female gynecologic oncology surgeons from across the country. Band members spend five to eight weekends a year together, usually doing two gigs over a weekend. Because they live in different cities, getting together to practice can be difficult, so they try to build in rehearsal time before shows.

N.E.D. was originally a cover band but now plays original songs and has released three albums. A fourth is in the works. There’s also a documentary about the band that American Public Television bought the five-year rights to and airs on its affiliate stations.

Listen to N.E.D.’s latest song, “Life as it was” featuring Tom Morello: https://awal.lnk.to/lifeasitwas

Over 10 years, the band has played more than 70 shows to more than 40,000 people and raised more than $1.5 million for the Foundation for Women’s Cancer and Margie’s Fund, a now-defunct Portland, Ore., organization. The band’s saying is “Breast cancer has a pink ribbon, gynecologic cancer has a rock band.”

“You don’t talk about the breast outside of the doctor’s office,” Winter says. “It’s just not something that’s brought up in conversation. Imagine that and apply it to the cancer of the vulva, vagina, uterus, or cervix. We definitely don’t talk about that. Our goal is to figuratively - and literally - make noise about these kinds of cancers, which affect over 80,000 women a year.”

To jump-start that conversation, the band includes an educational pamphlet inside its albums in addition to making music and putting on shows.

It works. “We’ve actually had women tell us they went to one of our shows, went to their doctor, told him about these signs and symptoms, and got diagnosed with a cancer,” Winter says.

N.E.D. may be comprised of a group of doctors by day, but it’s not a gimmick or shtick, Winter says. The band’s songs aren’t about medicine or cancer or gynecology. They’re about love and loss and moments painful and funny. Just like all good songs.

Watch the band play “Life Force” live:

“We used to not consider ourselves professional. We called ourselves semipro,” says Winter, one of the band’s two primary songwriters. “But now we’re unapologetic about it: We are professional musicians as well as physicians.”

Winter feared his patients would be put off when they learned he’s in a band. After all, the line between patient and physician is blurred in the age of Google and social media. It’s easy now for patients to learn about their doctors.

To Winter’ surprise, his patients like that he’s in a band because. They say it makes him seem more human. In fact, patients have told him they booked an appointment with him because, while researching specialists, they discovered he was in a band - even if they were referred to another oncologist. When he introduces himself, at least half of his patients say, “Yeah, you play guitar.”

Winter says that makes him more relatable and not as stiff as his white lab coat or as heavy as cancer. “They see you as a person with hobbies and passions other than taking care of cancer patients,” he says. “So [if you] google your oncologist and the first picture you see is this guitarist with this light shining behind him like there’s some sort of explosion in a rock show, it takes the edge off a bit.”

Of course, audience members aren’t the only ones who benefit from N.E.D. performances.

“It means a lot to me,” Winter says. “It’s pure joy. It’s my chicken noodle soup. Just like our patients need a release from their disease, we physicians need a release from the constant heaviness we feel when we’re taking care of patients who are dying.

“Every day I’m in clinic, I see at least one patient who is close to the end of their life. That’s hard. With your patients who pass away, there’s a heaviness. Without an outlet, some release valve, you’d get burnt out. Oncology is an especially easy field to get burnt out in because you see death and dying every day.”

Winter says playing the occasional weekend gig helps him get through those tough, long workdays.

“Getting up there, strapping an electric guitar around my neck, playing [music], pretending like I’m some sort of rock star, and having more fun than a grown man should - it’s cool,” he says. “And it allows me to keep doing what I’m doing every day [at my] job.”

Soham Roy, bringing the bass

“Just about everybody who’s in medicine has some backstory,” Roy says. “They’ve got some cool thing they do that’s a secret passion of theirs, maybe woodworking or working on cars.”

Roy is no exception. He’s the director of pediatric otolaryngology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and a member of UT Physicians. He’s also a violinist and bassist, but he left that hardscrabble career path behind. Well, he did for a little while.

Roy joined his first band at age 13 and was a professional violinist before starting med school. He still plays violin at weddings and other events. But he, too, wanted job security and something a bit more challenging intellectually and emotionally. Not to mention more rewarding.

“When you can help a child, improve their quality of life, or even save their life, you can’t beat that feeling,” he says. “No career is ever going to compete with that.”

Roy is the only physician in the band the Voodoo Dolls, which covers everything from 1970s arena rock to 2000s pop and dance music.

“I want to play with guys who are real musicians who don’t ask me about my day at work and don’t care about how my work is going,” he says. “When [I’m] with the band, I’m just the bass player. It gives me an escape.”

His day job can get intense, making it vital for Roy to practice self-care, including spending focused quality time with his daughter or playing music.

“Having a passion away from the clinical and academic demands of my day job is paramount to being an overall happier person,” he says. “A happy, well-balanced physician probably makes for a better doctor than one who has no outside interests, hobbies, or fun things to clear his or her head.”

Here’s a secret, though: Even on stage, Roy’s mind wanders to thinking about how he can help his patients. “But it’s more fun to do it with my bass strapped around me and playing Guns N’ Roses,” he says. On a few occasions, the parents of patients have come up to Roy between songs and asked, “Aren’t you my kid’s surgeon?” or “Aren’t you Dr. Roy?” Roy’s answer is, “Sorry, you must have me confused for someone else. I hear that a lot, though,” he says with a wink.

Roy tries to ensure he doesn’t have any work responsibilities and someone else covers for him when he has a performance. But because he’s division chief, Roy has to be available to patients who need pediatric ENT help 24/7. “I’ve had a few gigs where, on breaks between sets, I was on the phone with a pediatrician who needed advice or a recommendation about a patient, or I was speaking with residents about something going on in the hospital,” he says.

The hand dexterity required to play bass mimics that needed as a surgeon, so there’s a physical benefit to playing an instrument as well.

But playing music is actually a selfish thing, he admits. He likes being able to bring music and energy to other people, but ultimately, he plays because he enjoys it. It’s almost - almost - just a side benefit that it also helps him be a better physician. But in reality, those two things are intertwined.

And if he can cover his evening’s bar tab from the proceeds of the performance, it’s a good evening before he heads into another week of high-stress, high-pressure patient care.

Dave Schafer is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio.