Doctors Turn to Music and Art to Help Ease Stressful Careers
By Christine Sampson
From increased focus at work and school to lowered risk of dementia and depression to straightforward stress relief, social interaction and enjoyment, scientists all over the world have demonstrated in study after study there are multiple benefits that come with having a creative outlet.
So it’s fair to say sometimes having such an outlet is just what the doctor ordered – and doctors themselves are no exception when it comes to those who benefit from creative pursuits such as music, painting, writing and more.
“Multiple people — including patients and others — all demand something of me and a lot is going on,” said Dr. Francis Yoo of Hampton Bays, who practices family medicine out of Southampton Hospital’s Westhampton primary care center and who makes time to play music outside of work. “My job is demanding in a sense that there never really isn’t nothing to do and it is an ongoing thing. Music does help. It’s fun to physically, mentally, emotionally just let it out, especially with others.”
Dr. Yoo is the bass player for a band called Side FX, which consists of doctors and other professionals from Southampton Hospital and other healthcare institutions on Long Island. Side FX even won the “Docs Who Rock” battle-of-the-bands competition in 2016, which benefited bone marrow transplant patients at Stony Brook University Hospital. Members say besides providing a way to “let loose,” it’s also a great vehicle for socialization and creative expression.
“Everyone should have a passion. I find that those who don’t have a singular passion for something have no passion for anything in life,” said Dr. Raymond Mantovani, a pulmonary critical care specialist at Southampton Hospital who plays guitar in Side FX.
“Working in the high pressure specialty of pulmonary critical care, it has always helped me keep my sanity,” said Dr. Mantovani, who has been playing guitar since he was 11 years old, and who even relied on it to earn extra money while he was in college.
Dr. Peter Sultan of Westhampton, an orthopedic surgeon who has been with Peconic Bay Medical Center for 12 years, is a self-taught pianist who plays for friends and family and at hospital events. He even has his own YouTube channel, where his videos have collectively racked up thousands of hits. His go-to songs include those by Billy Joel and Elton John along with film scores like “Star Wars.”
While Dr. Sultan acknowledges music can be good for stress relief, that’s not the reason he plays.
“I think that music opens your mind, and it keeps you aware and focused and you can learn more,” he said. “It’s an interesting correlation.”
Six months ago, he started bringing a keyboard to work. He plays during his lunch breaks, and finds his practice sessions are more productive than when he’s practicing at home because he is less tired than when he comes home from work. He also builds model cars, airplanes, helicopters and other vehicles.
“It’s all very satisfying and it is complimentary to working as a surgeon,” Dr. Sultan said. “I seem to want to work with my hands during the day and at night, except at night I don’t have the stress of what I do during the day, which makes it different.”
He said a lot of doctors simply “do their work and go home, maybe read the paper.
“I think it’s a good idea to have an outlet or hobby, but I find a lot of doctors don’t,” he said.
That some doctors lead creative double lives is not a new phenomenon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical doctor in 19th-century Scotland before he penned the famous Sherlock Holmes series, which often featured the medical arts. William Carlos Williams practiced medicine for 40 years before winning a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for poetry in 1963. Dr. James Lilja, a gynecological oncologist in northern California, played drums and sang back-up for the rock band Offspring in the 1980s.
Dr. Margaret Whelan of East Hampton is a radiologist at Southampton Hospital whose oil paintings hang in the hallways of the hospital – and in the homes of the many East End residents who have purchased her paintings at the annual Clothesline Art Sale at Guild Hall. She doesn’t paint to earn a profit, though. Rather, she donates the proceeds of her work to Guild Hall and other organizations, and often gives them away to be raffled at events.
“I’ve always been interested in art,” Dr. Whelan said. “When I was in medical school, I did watercolors. I used to sell them to make money for my expenses. My dad was an immigrant from Ireland who was a cabinetmaker in Brooklyn Heights. On the promenade, they had a sale and I used to sell my paintings there. The reason I did water colors was it was less messy and easy to transport.”
But once she became a practicing medical professional, she found she didn’t have time to paint for many years. It was only after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, that she took a step back, reflected on life a little, moved to the East End from New York City with her husband and began to paint again.
Dr. Anthony Mitarotondo of Nassau Point, who serves as chief of radiology at Eastern Long Island Hospital, has a different sort of passion outside of his passion for medicine. He loves gardening, saying it brings him close to nature.
“You get into work in the morning and you’re already behind the eight-ball,” Dr. Mitarotondo said. “And when you leave you’re still behind. But when you’re in the garden, you don’t have the deadlines like that. You’re not on the clock. It’s different from the workday. You’re doing one thing at a time. There’s no multitasking.”
Like Dr. Yoo and Dr. Mantovani, Dr. Whelan said having an artistic outlet can be restorative and satisfying.
“I like things that calm me down because there are a lot of things that make you upset in life,” she said.
Dr. Whelan, who often paints the seascapes and landscapes of the South Fork, also likes the creative expression that being an artist affords her.
“You’re putting yourself on a canvas, and it’s very unique. It’s really all you, the way you feel about the sea, about color, the way you interpret something,” she said.
Dr. Whelan said she personally thinks that doctors need a passion of some sort, even it isn’t in the fine arts.
“I know people who think of color as something that matches your couch,” she said. “But even if it’s not an outlet like the one I have, people should have some sort of outlet that allows them to decompress.”