Surgery and Violin: Parallel Interests

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terrybuchmillerTerry Buchmiller, MD is an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a specialist in pediatric surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is also a skilled violinist who plays in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra in its 28th year that is composed mainly of physicians, medical students, and healthcare professionals in the Boston Longwood medical area. Dr. Buchmiller practiced violin around 5 hours a day in college as a music major, and played in symphonies throughout medical school and residency. Dr. Buchmiller is not alone in her dual surgeon-artist identity. Last year, the American College of Surgeons had a panel on surgeon-artists at its annual meeting in San Francisco, and Dr. Buchmiller sat alongside an artist and a poet to talk about her musical side.

I read this profile of Dr. Buchmiller in the Harvard Gazette, where she talks about the practice, stamina, focus, skill and teamwork required for both music and surgery. For a pediatric surgeon working with small bodies, delicacy and fine motor skills are even more important. Back when she was chief surgical resident, Dr. Buchmiller assisted in successfully separating conjoined twins who shared their liver and colon. In her Gazette interview, Dr. Buchmiller said: “The traditional way surgery and music is taught, the way that I learned both, was to focus on the individual building blocks, each individual skill and then learn the big picture. Very scientific and very logical at the beginning and putting in the emotional part and the nuances only when your fingers know what to do, when your hands know what to do.” I had the chance to chat with Dr. Buchmiller and learn more about her identity as both a surgeon and violinist.

V: What was your career path into medicine and music?

Dr. Buchmiller: I started having an interest in both medicine and music at a very young age. I grew up in the Stanford area, and we had music in the school system, so I started playing violin when I was 7. I took up a huge interest in private lessons, and joined a couple of symphonies around that area. My interest in medicine came from shadowing my pediatrician, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old. He picked up on the interest and he exposed me to medicine, and then I joined a medical explorer group and even got to observe surgery at UCSF when I was 11. I think I always knew that I wanted to be a physician, no question about that, but music was also always exceptionally important to me. I only took the bare minimum of pre-medical classes, and did a music major in college. My job at college was being the teaching assistant for the chairman of the music department. So music and medicine was always a parallel interest.

V: Did you keep up playing music throughout your medical training?

Dr. Buchmiller: I went to UC Davis for medical school, and I played in the UC Davis symphony. It was just kind of serendipity that all of our tests there were on Mondays, and orchestra was Tuesday night. So you studied every weekend for the Monday test, but then you got Tuesday night rehearsal. I basically played for all four years of medical school, maybe not as much in the fourth year while doing all the sub-internships and traveling a little bit. I actually tried to play quite a bit through residency as well. The conductors were always very attuned to the fact that I was a resident and couldn’t make every rehearsal. I played well enough, and as a violinist, you play in a section, so you’re not super exposed like a wind player. The only time that I didn’t play was during my pediatric surgical fellowship, because that was just so busy, there was just absolutely no way to play. But with that exception of those two years when I didn’t play with a symphony, I’ve always played. And the symphony that I play with now is the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, named after the Longwood medical area in Boston. The former president is a pediatrician named Lisa Wong, and she has actually written a book on the Longwood symphony and the history of it, called Scales to Scalpels. The symphony is an extremely high-level group, hands-down the best community non-professional orchestra I’ve ever played with.

Terry Buchmiller, center,  is a Harvard University assistant professor of surgery, and also a violinist for Longwood Symphony Orchestra, too. (On the left is Yue-Yang Hu, a surgical resident; on the right is Scrub Nurse, Nicole Joseph. In foregoround is Alejandro Flores, MD)  Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Terry Buchmiller, center, is a Harvard University assistant professor of surgery, and also a violinist for Longwood Symphony Orchestra. (On the left is Yue-Yang Hu, a surgical resident; on the right is Scrub Nurse, Nicole Joseph.) They are performing laparoscopic GI surgery. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer, provided courtesy of Dr. Buchmiller

V: Do you see an overlap between music and surgery that explains your talent and interest in both?

Dr. Buchmiller: I think there’s a huge overlap between the two. I think they have to be related. Even though you’re doing surgery over and over, each operation is different. The operation can be slightly technically different, and certainly every patient is different, and so it’s so fresh. Similarly, I mean, no matter how many times you play the Beethoven 9th symphony I still get goosebumps because it’s still fresh. I can play it from memory but it’s fresh. I think that those qualities of focus and perseverance translate extremely strongly between the discipline of a successful musician or artist along with someone that goes through a medical career. You can’t bumble through either, really. You have to put in your time so that you have the foundation, the building blocks, to then really create. I do think there’s a tremendous synergy between the two.

V: Do you have recommendations on how you were able to manage your time, even in residency, to be able to balance the two?

Dr. Buchmiller: I would say there are some things that are just intrinsically part of your life, and you just make time for them. If I’m not doing music or if I’m not exercising, at some level my balance is off, and it’s not me. Me 20 years ago is the same me now, because my balance is based on this fundamental core thing. So how do you do it? First of all you make it a priority and you have a supportive home environment. You have to also realize it’s episodic. I’m never going to be at the same technical level that I was when I was a music major playing four or five hours a day. You just have to accept that too, and say well, even though I may not be at that level of performance, it’s the best I can do. It’s good enough considering that for surgical skill, you always want to be at the top of your game. So the other things can go through ebbs and flows. I like the episodic nature of playing with an orchestra: you put it on your calendar, you go to rehearsal, you come home, and after you do the concert, you have a break for a while. An orchestra is a perfect way to keep that up.


Dr. Buchmiller, left, at work on newborn intestinal surgery as a pediatric surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. Image provided courtesy of Dr. Buchmiller.

V: A lot of people are talking about physician burnout and ways to combat that. Does music, for you, serve as a mental outlet as well?

Dr. Buchmiller: It absolutely is transformational. One of our previous conductors in the Longwood symphony used to shake his head, because it would always take us 10, 15, 20 minutes at the beginning of rehearsal to kind of get out of our day head and get into our rehearsal head, whereas professional musicians spend their whole day preparing to come to rehearsal, so it was very different for him. It’s nice to put the cell phone down, go to a different space, and be technical but creative. No matter what, I think we all have to have some outlet. I think it’s very interesting for surgeons that when you go to medical school you don’t talk about what movie you went and saw Saturday night, because that meant you weren’t studying. And if you were an artist you didn’t talk about practicing your art because then it meant you weren’t studying. I think we need to culturally and socially have the freedom to say it’s okay to be well-rounded, it’s ok to be human and share the fact that you went for a great run or played a great concert or that you actually had a few minutes that you took to yourself. We always used to have conferences on Saturday, and everyone just was used to it, but over the years that’s changed, because people realized that was personal and family time. If you take a little break, whatever it is, you come back and you’re sharper.