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Songs of the Soul

Oct 22, 2013

For Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, art and science have always been intertwined, never dichotomous. Before becoming a general practitioner, his father attended art school. His uncles are doctors. His mother is an art appraiser. Life in the Eisenberg family meant piano jam sessions and an up-close view of the unique connection between physicians and their patients. "Art, music, medicine, and healing were my milieu growing up," said Dr. Eisenberg, who plays piano and guitar, sings, and writes music.

Today as a hematologist/oncologist, he shares his musical talents with the patients in his community practice— California Cancer Associates for Research & Excellence—collaborating with them to write personal songs about their lives and emotions following their cancer diagnosis. The songs become anthems for the patients and their families, inspiring them through the cancer journey and reminding them that they are not defined by illness.

AC: What inspired you to start writing songs with your patients?


Dr. Eisenberg: There's a song I listen to a lot called "Mission of My Soul," by Peter Himmelman, which begins, "When you need me, I'll stand beside you. I'm there for you wherever you go. When you're hungry, I'll satisfy you. That's the mission of my soul." I first heard the song when I was an intern working long nights, and those four lines reminded me about my own mission to connect with people in need.

In 2008, Peter Himmelman had a writing contest, asking "how has Peter's music impacted you?" I wrote a response about the song that helped me through the hard nights of my internship, and I won the contest. The prize was that Peter Himmelman would write a song about me, based on my story. At that time, I myself was going through a scary health challenge. But I had this song that was written just for me, and when I listened to it, I felt this sense of being uplifted. I'm fine now, and in the deepest part of myself I wonder if that song had something to do with it. That was my epiphany—I had to bring this feeling to my patients. I thought, if the songs touch at least one person the way my song touched me, I would have done some good in the world.

AC: How does the writing process typically go?

Dr. Eisenberg: I get that it's an unorthodox approach, so I tread lightly at first. I ask patients, if we did a song together, how would that land? If the patient is open to it, we'll have a songwriting session, usually over the phone or at their home. The patient is really the artist, and I'm just along for the ride. Their words, sentiments, and what they love in life become the lyrics of the song. Over the next week or so, my notes from the session start to weave into a song. Maybe one phrase will stand out to become the title, and another phrase becomes the chorus, and then I start to hear a tune in my head. The song forms itself the way all connections are made: one interaction at a time. After I perform the song for the person, I usually make a CD for them, so that their creation can live on and they can continue to feel uplifted. It becomes their anthem. I'm converting a tiny room in our house into a studio to do more of the recordings.

AC: Every patient's journey is unique, but do any themes seem to recur within the songs?

Dr. Eisenberg: There are some notions that always bubble up to the top. The love that they share with their family, which can never be taken away. Forgiveness and healing past wounds. Getting reconnected to their faith, whatever their beliefs may be. Courage. Generosity and wanting to give back to others. The song is never about the cancer—it's always about the patient as a person, the journey of their life, and the legacy they want to leave.

AC: What advice would you give to oncologists who want to connect with their patients on a more personal level?

Dr. Eisenberg: The first step is listening from a place of generosity. If this was your brother or sister, your parent, your child, how would you listen to that person? One of the simplest ways to connect is to sit down next to a patient with the computer or iPad and search for something meaningful—a research study, a guideline, whatever is on the patient's plate that day—and discuss it for a few minutes. Patients love it, I find, when you're creating something together, even something as simple as a Google search. You don't have to write a song—you can listen to a song together, you can share a story. The important thing is to share an experience, and there's no right or wrong way.

AC: What new creative projects are keeping you busy?

Dr. Eisenberg: I'm partnering with a childhood friend, who is now an amazing tech designer, on workflow and care coordination software for fellow oncologists and their teams, that will help bring this idea of connection to the forefront of practice. When you're going through cancer treatment, you have an enormous team of people working on your behalf, but there are such brief periods when you're together in the same room with your care team. Between those visits you can feel like you're off on your own. We want to use technology to create more connected teams and to keep patients tuned in to their care, so that from the time a person is diagnosed with cancer they're only one click away from their oncology team. I'm excited to see where it goes. The company is called Workup.

Read Dr. Eisenberg's winning vignette on Peter Himmelman's "Mission of My Soul" at peterhimmelman.com/contestwinner.html. Hear Mr. Himmelman's song about Dr. Eisenberg at peterhimmelman.com/audio/contest2.html.

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