Neurosurgery is a potentially dangerous career choice.
Unlike many vocations, being a neurosurgeon very quickly becomes an integral, and often dominant part of our identity. We become existentially tied to our profession in many ways. Everything we do or say in public is interpreted with a peculiar lens and reflects upon us in the context of being a neurosurgeon whether we like it or not. This internalization of our profession can be extremely advantageous when it drives us to push the frontiers of our specialty in enhancing patient care and driving neurosurgical inquiry. The iconoclast neurosurgeon leading the charge to develop creative and effective treatments for suffering patients is a stereotype based in fact and an image we should be proud of. I owe my career to Peter Janetta, a stubbornly brilliant empiricist who established a whole field of neurosurgery on the strength of belief and dogged documentation. On the flip side, our profession is a very serious one. Taking oneself too seriously can lead to disastrous consequences due to self-imposed social isolation, narcissism, and burnout. The stereotype of the self-centered, hard to work with, out of touch with reality, and reckless neurosurgeon is also, unfortunately based in fact.
One way that I have found to avoid spiraling into my own rabbit hole is to play music with friends. Now, to be clear, calling me a musician is like calling me a golfer. I own the tools, play with them with friends in public, and have a wonderful time while doing so. I won’t slow the group down but there will be a few shots WAY out of bounds. Our score may not approach par, but we sure have a fun time chasing the ideal and are sometimes rewarded with the miraculous joy associated with finding the groove. Important differences between golf and music are 1) music has always been important to me in terms of defining my identity in different phases of my life; 2) the blending of the discipline of theory with the audacity of improvisation fascinates me and irritates me, and motivates me beyond reason; and 3) the people I have met through music are smarter, more diverse, and more interesting than anyone I’ve met on a golf course or in any other venue that I have traversed on my largely academic journey.
As all of you know, there are many more talented neurosurgeon musicians than me. Playing with the “old guys jazz band” at neurosurgical functions is a music lesson for me. Jim Rose, Mike Scott, Ted Schwartz, Phil Weinstein, Casey Halpern, and numerous neurosurgical musicians over the years have appropriately put me in my place as an also-ran. In my life in NASS (North American Spine Society) we had a rock and roll band (Axial Pain) made up of several outstanding orthopedic musicians including Way Yin who literally introduced me to the blues scene in Chicago. John Popp is an outstanding classic pianist. Tim Ryken plays a good guitar as does Ganesh Rao and Howard Weiner. Larry Chin and Mark Dannenbaum are both talented drummers and I am sure there are dozens I have left off the list who are household names due to their leadership roles in neurosurgery.