Whatever you do, put your whole heart into it

A cardiologist and professional musician learns the value of vulnerability at work

Image Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I used to share no personal information with anyone I worked with, I didn’t socialize with anyone outside the hospital,” says Suzie Brown, an advanced heart failure/heart transplant cardiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “I think it was partly being a young woman in cardiology and wanting to be taken seriously. I wanted to show I was tough. That I could do it.”

But the stoicism Brown once employed to make headway at her job quickly devolved into emotional burnout. She needed an outlet from her stifling 80–100-hour a week schedule: a place where she didn’t feel like she had to be strong for everyone else.

Taking advantage of a rare three-month break between studies, Brown turned her energy toward music.

“I started writing my own songs and performing them — that made me happier than anything I had ever done by far,” she says.

The idea of returning to her “unthinkable” schedule left Brown questioning how much of her happiness she’d have to sacrifice for a successful career as a cardiologist. “I kept looking at the people I work with and feeling like, I’m just not like them,” she admits. “I still loved being a doctor, and I still felt like I was really good at it. But there was just this other half of me that I couldn’t ignore.”

Faced with the seemingly impossible all-or-nothing choice between a career as a doctor and a career as a musician, Brown wondered if there wasn’t another way she could make room for both. At the interview for her current job, she asked whether she could alternate weeks, so she could spend some more time with her family and play her music. To her surprise, they agreed.

It was at that point that Brown became increasingly attuned to how much people — whether in music or in medicine — associate prestige with success. Many of her former classmates questioned her decision to work part-time. Meanwhile, Brown wondered whether musicians in her local community fully accepted her as a professional when she wasn’t 100% devoted to being a musician.

“People do good work in all sorts of places, even if they’re not the most prestigious places,” she says. “That’s what people forget to tell you: You can be super proud of your work anywhere. You don’t have to be famous.”

But for Brown, what mattered most in either of her professions wasn’t how many hours she was pouring into it. What mattered was staying genuinely connected to the work and building kinship and community with the people around her.

 

Sometimes Your Dreams Find You album cover
Brown’s latest album “Sometimes Your Dreams Find You” (Suzy Brown Music)

 

“People do good work in all sorts of places, even if they’re not the most prestigious places,” she says. “That’s what people forget to tell you: You can be super proud of your work anywhere. You don’t have to be famous.”

Since she started pursuing a dual career, Brown’s medical practice and her musical endeavours have come full circle. Looking back, she recognizes that her earlier dissatisfaction in her career wasn’t strictly owing to the tug-of-war she felt between her two passions.

In reality, it was her stoicism that wasn’t serving her. Brown learned she needed to be equally vulnerable in her work as a doctor as she is in her work as a musician. That was the only real way to connect.

“It turns out, people like it when you’re vulnerable,” she says. “They find you easier to relate to. It’s not a sign that you aren’t confident.”

In a TedMed talk she gave in 2015, Brown opens up about how her emotional release through music affected her demeanor as a doctor: “Instead of suppressing my sadness at a bad outcome, for the sake of being strong for everyone, I now find myself admitting how sad I feel, and even crying with my patients and their families,” she says.

“People feel more comfortable showing how they’re feeling, too,” she adds. “And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.”

Watch Suzie Brown’s full TEDMED talk: “A concert of melody and medicine.”

Lima Al-Azzeh has no musical abilities whatsoever.

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