When I was six years old, I made a public declaration that I would become a singing doctor. I knew I wanted to be a doctor, influenced by my pediatrician, and I also loved singing. So, at that time, it made perfect sense to me that I should be able to do both when I grew up. I had a vivid vision of singing to children while taking care of them.
As the years went by, I was encouraged to actively pursue a career as a medical doctor. However, my dream of becoming a singer seemed less attainable and gradually lost its significance as I grew older. I got into medical school and went on to complete my residency training in anesthesiology, followed by my fellowship training in pain medicine. Music completely fell by the wayside. After years of training, I eventually became an attending physician at a small community hospital. I thought I had finally made it and that my life was going to be magnificent—or so I thought.
Once I started working as an attending physician, I began to feel that something was missing, little by little. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy with my professional life, and this discontent grew with each passing year. I no longer found satisfaction in my work. I felt unfulfilled and uninspired, as if I were just going through the motions every day. I knew I wasn’t working at my best, and I believed my patients deserved better. Then, one day in 2010, I became so disenchanted that I made the decision to quit. I had to quit. I didn’t have another job or career opportunity lined up, but I was certain that I couldn’t continue working in that manner.
I chose to take some time off and engage in self-examination. I reflected on my life and contemplated the things and experiences that brought me joy. It should come as no surprise that I kept coming back to music and singing. And so, one day, after I started practicing hospice and palliative medicine, I asked myself, “What would happen if I decided to sing for a patient at the bedside?” I decided to give it a try. I had a patient who was dying from rectal cancer; he also happened to be a professional jazz musician. During his final days, I would sing for him, and he would sing along when he could, although sometimes he was too weak to join me. Shortly before his death, I organized a bedside jam session for him, fulfilling his dying wish. I sang for him while some of my friends accompanied me on the saxophone and trumpet. He passed away a few days later, after his dying wish came true. This experience inspired me to start my podcast, Prescriptions In Song, dedicated to promoting awareness of the healing potential of music. I have also continued to incorporate music into my care for very sick patients and their loved ones, who are dealing with the challenges of caring for someone who is seriously ill.
Through years of caring for very sick patients, I have come to appreciate the fact that there is no pharmacologic agent that I can prescribe or any medical procedure that I can perform to address the loneliness or the loss of personhood that people feel when they are living with a life-threatening or life-limiting illness. My experiences have taught me that music may be one of the few things that can make a positive impact during these incredibly difficult times in my patients’ and their loved ones’ lives.
What I find ironic is that as an anesthesiologist—a person who monitors vital signs for a living—for a long time, I was not paying attention to my own vital signs. I failed to take note of the things that fulfilled me and gave my life a sense of purpose. Music has once again become an integral part of my life, and I am committed to keeping it that way. Now, almost four decades later, I am grateful that things have come full circle, and I have become the singing doctor that my six-year-old self knew I needed to be.
Sydelle Ross is an anesthesiologist.