Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Achieving Balance: Medicine & The Arts

Published in the Winter 2011 Duke Med Alumni News Magazine

By Whitney L.J. Howell

By day, they study anatomy, absorb the latest research on combating acute disease, and learn best practices for managing chronic conditions. But by night and on weekends, they play instruments, dance, sing, sculpt, and act. They are Duke University School of Medicine students—and they are artists.

Although keeping up with the rigors of medical school is their number one priority, these students unanimously agree that they cannot imagine abandoning their artistic activity. It does not matter that they cannot devote the same level of time and intensity they once did. Most consider their art an integral part of their lives—and key to handling the stress of medical education.

A study presented at a 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges regional meeting found that exposure to art can improve a doctor’s clinical skills. These artistic Duke physicians-in-training agree. For them, art and medicine go hand-in-hand.

“The best doctors are people who are balanced and find enjoyment in something other than medicine,” says Brian Schwab, MSIII. “For me, if music keeps me balanced and happy, then that will be good for my patients. Staying active with music will help me express myself better and share my professional enjoyment with patients rather than thinking only about health, drugs, and surgery.”


For Schwab, the current Davison Council president, and JenniferVogel , MS II, artistic expression comes as their fingers fly across piano or organ keyboards. Although neither considered music as a career, they both carve out time weekly to play for themselves and others.

Schwab, who self-published two improvisational albums in high school and college, cut his musical teeth the way many young students do. He picked up the clarinet in the 6th grade and played in his school band. A year later, he switched to classical piano, but soon found he had a passion for jazz and rock music. In fact, the high school rock band for which he played keyboard—Ninjas of the Kremlin—placed among the top three in a Battle of the Bands competition in his hometown of Portland, Ore.

His love of music followed him through his undergraduate career at Rice University, where he performed both as a solo artist and with a large church group. He found it impossible to escape the desire to create melodies, even while on a medical Spanish immersion trip to Mexico before his senior year. When the salsa band at his hotel took a break, he took the stage and ended up playing with the band that night.

At Duke, Schwab has continued playing church music at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Durham. He also has integrated into the medical school’s vibrant music scene. As a first-year student, he joined two bands—Sorry Charlie, a Duke-University of North Carolina at Chapel hill group, and the Duke-only Bill Roth & The Histones.

With plans to become a surgeon, Schwab says staying active in music will help him continue to improve his performance when he is a practicing physician. He also plays guitar and recently picked up the harmonica.

“I enjoy being able to express myself through music,” he says. “Continuing to play and practice will help me develop a higher level of skills.”

Like Schwab, Vogel is a pianist. But unlike him, she pursued classical music and eventually, with encouragement from her music teacher and influence from her older brother, turned her attention to the organ during her early teen-age years. A devout student of the three B’s of classical music—Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven—she admits that the organ is an unusual instrument for a young person.

“As a middle-schooler, I saw my brother play the organ, and I got jealous because it looked like it was really fun to play,” says Vogel, who currently works part-time as an organist for a Durham church. “It’s a really cool instrument, and it opened up opportunities for me to perform competitively, as well as to watch many great musicians play.”

One such experience set the trajectory of her college years. As a rising high school senior, she attended the prestigious Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. During those eight weeks, she studied with other talented musicians and had free access to concerts given by international artists. The two months were inspiring, and they led her to major in music at Stanford University. Once there, she earned the trust of the music faculty and received a set of keys to the campus chapel to practice on the organ at her convenience.

But she bypassed a musical career in favor of one in health care. However, she says her years as a performer did prepare her well for medical school.

“The four to six hours I spent every day practicing and playing were great training for the long hours of being a medical student,” she says. “I knew I wanted to concentrate on the enriching aspects of music—the business of music is very different than simply making music that you enjoy and love.”

And, it is exactly those inspirational aspects of music that she hopes will positively impact how she practices medicine and relates to her patients. It is incumbent upon physicians to communicate health information effectively, and being well versed in expressing emotion through music will be a benefit to patient relations, she says, especially as she is considering a career in pediatrics.


The double-helix structure of DNA does not often come to mind in discussions of art. A steel sculpture now outside the Bryan Center on campus proves it can be an excellent model.

Although he usually draws pulp fiction comic art, Kwadwo “Kojo” Owusu-Akyaw, T’10, MSI, deviated from his norm to create a more than 8-foot-tall structure of DNA in the midst of the process of replication. He built the sculpture in early 2010 during the last semester of his senior year at Duke University. It was placed at the front of the student center at the request of Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth and Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta.

“The structure of DNA has a very big visual appeal,” Owusu-Akyaw says, adding he only began sculpting a year ago. “I wanted to produce something that demonstrated that biology and its components can be beautiful.”

Owusu-Akyaw used conventional tools to construct the sculpture, but his long-standing artistic tool is his saxophone. He picked up the instrument as a 5th-grade student and took classical music lessons. As a high school student, he played in several All-Region Bands, as well as a classical quartet that competed at the state level.

Today, he plays in the Durham-based quartet Straight Up Jazz. He joined the group this past August, and they often perform at Broad Street Café near East Campus. The other band members might be significantly older than he is, but Owusu-Akyaw, who admires Miles Davis but emulates saxophonist Sonny Rollins, says he thoroughly enjoys being part of the group.

“With jazz music, there’s lots of room for improvisation and expressing yourself,” he says. “You can say what you want to say. Once you know the basic rules of music, you can open up a whole new world.”

Having music as a stress-relief outlet will make him a better doctor, he says, because he often finds an inner peace when he plays. Picking up his saxophone at the end of a hard day helps him process the day’s anxieties and will likely enhance his ability to help others.

For Matthew Kan, MSIII, his art—the violin he has played since age 4—has prepared him to be a strong leader. After two years of private lessons, Kan joined the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and became a concert master by the end of high school. During his tenure with the orchestra, the group performed in Mexico, Cuba, Russia, Lithuania, and Ireland. One of the concerts they performed was Peter and the Wolf, featuring narrators Danny Glover and Sharon Stone.

Working with famous actors was an incredible opportunity, he says, but it also required him to accept a level of responsibility unusual for someone his age.

“The orchestra is a very professional environment, and its pressures require more maturity than is often expected from a high school student,” says Kan, who has a clinical interest in pediatric allergy and immunology. “So, I learned leadership skills that have proven helpful as I’ve gone through the MD/PhD program, such as how to compromise and work well together, as well as how to delegate tasks.”

Kan’s love of chamber music remained with him after high school. Like Vogel, Kan, who also has an affinity for Brahms and Bach, spent two months at the Aspen Music Festival and School. In addition, he was part of the first season of Music@Menlo, an internationally acclaimed chamber music festival and institute in San Francisco, and he played with Stanford University’s Emerson Quartet.

As a Harvard University undergraduate, he played in the Harvard-Radcliffe orchestra throughout college. His musical involvement at Duke, however, has been less constant—he was unable to play during the demanding second year. Currently, he plays in the Duke Medical Orchestra, a group composed of approximately 50 Duke health care professionals, and takes private lessons from Eric Pritchard, a violinist and professor of practice in Duke University’s Department of Music.


Many physicians and artists would agree there is a clear connection between the medical study of the human body and using the entire body to produce artistic expression. Singing, dancing, and acting often require total body involvement, and several Duke medical students engage in these activities frequently.

From the moment Matthew MacCarthy, MSIII, tried out for a role in The Music Man as an 8th-grade student, he has loved musical theater. His turn as first tenor in the barbershop quartet showed him the joys of acting out stories on stage with words and song. His participation in such a physically demanding art form is unique, however, because MacCarthy lives with cerebral palsy.

Rather than join a theater group as a University of Denver undergraduate, he became involved in the Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League (PHAMALY), a community theater that provides performance opportunities for individuals living with disabilities. As a group member, MacCarthy participated in several productions, including Oklahoma!, Les Miserables, and The Wiz.

“The first time I saw a PHAMALY production in high school, I thought it was amazing because the shows were tweaked to accommodate and play off of the disabilities of people in the cast,” MacCarthy says. “It’s always been very inspiring to me to see people overcome their daily challenges. It takes guts to get on stage just for the love of art.”

MacCarthy says he participates in the annual Duke Medical Student-Faculty show, but his main artistic activity now is Duke’s oldest undergraduate a capella group, Pitchforks. Currently, the all-male group takes up the largest chunk of his time outside of academics, with roughly four hours of practice weekly.

Being involved with Pitchforks dovetails nicely with his plan to enter pediatrics, he says. Ultimately, he wants to employ music therapy, such as singing solo for children or in groups, to enhance the medical treatment they receive. MacCarthy also sings with the medical school a capella group, Major Groove, which rounds the hospital, singing for patients who want to listen. According to MacCarthy, the effects are evident.

“Music is a special tool in the art of healing,” he says. “You can physically see people’s spirits lift. When we sang Deck the Halls this past holiday season, one woman in the hospital for cancer treatment, who had been relatively nonresponsive, opened her eyes wide, sat up, and was the first one to clap when we finished.”

Cecelia Ong, MSII, also was part of that serenade. During her first year of medical school, Ong founded Major Groove, which is named for the major and minor grooves in DNA. In the beginning, the group, which is part of the Health Arts Network at Duke, was composed only of first-year medical students. Now, 16 to 18 students from all four years and the MD/PhD program participate.

During the holiday caroling, Ong had a similar experience to MacCarthy’s. In between songs, a patient spoke up about the desire to have a doctor who sings.

“He stopped us and said, ‘I want you to be my doctor. I want a doctor who can sing to bring my spirits up,’” she says.

Ong’s music career blossomed when she walked up to a piano in a store unprompted and started picking out notes unassisted—her parents took it as a sign that their daughter needed an instrument. Throughout her youth, she played for her high school theater group and took up the string bass to be part of the school orchestra.

“Piano is a solo focus, but the string bass provides the foundation for sound. You really hear the sounds of the foundations of the chords,” she says. “As a soprano singer, I’m very fond of hearing the ranges of melodies these instruments provide.”

Her vocal training began at age 8 in a Vietnamese youth choir under the leadership of a Vietnamese medical oncologist. It was an enlightening experience, not only because it introduced Ong to the intricacies of music, but also because it highlighted a Vietnamese musical culture previously unknown to her.

Since then, the voice and how it works has fascinated her. She is not ready to say she will be an otolaryngologist, but she does want to learn more about how vocal chords are used.

Perhaps the most physical form of art is dance. Stephanie Sheikh, MSII, first studied ballet, tap, and jazz as a 4-yearold, and she competed and traveled nationally in middle school. While in high school, Sheikh participated in national competitions in New York that offered opportunities to study under the current leading dancers from the American Ballet Theatre. She also continued her art as a neurosciences, behavioral biology, and dance undergraduate at Emory University.

After being accepted to study dance in New York, Sheikh deferred medical school for a year. During that time, she learned more about how the body moves naturally and what dancers should do to expand their current abilities. She now continues her training in modern dance at Ninth Street Dance in Durham. Each class is a step along the path toward her ultimate career goal and the seamless fusion of art and medicine.

“I’ve wanted to be a neurologist for a long time to work with patients living with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Sheikh says. “I also have an interest in working with patients who have movement disorders, because being unable to move is devastating.”

For Sheikh and her classmates, no matter the art form, they firmly believe including art in their lives will not only affect them today, but it will also influence them—and their patients—for years to come.

To read the story online: http://medalum.mc.duke.edu/wysiwyg/downloads/Winter2011DMAN.pdf

The story begins on pg. 11



February 8, 2011 - Posted by | Education, Healthcare, Profiles | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Ms. Howell~ I am a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, though my background after undergraduate school was as a professional musical theatre performer. Much like the Duke med students you described in this article, I had to discover a way to remain involved in the arts to retain a sense of “normalcy” and motivation while slogging through the rigorous medical school curriculum. I stumbled upon this post in my ongoing efforts to greatly expand the Arts & Humanities offerings we currently have on campus. I preside over the organization “Physicians for the Arts” (http://physiciansforthearts.blogspot.com/). Your post has been an inspiration, thank you!

    Comment by Julie Ruth Owen | April 5, 2011 | Reply

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