‘Song-cologist’ uses healing power of music to make personal connections with patients
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, is the world’s first song-cologist.
Eisenberg — medical oncologist at cCARE, which stands for California Cancer Associates for Research & Excellence — composes original songs with his patients that reflect who they are and what they most value.
“It is intended to represent what moves them and what inspires them,” Eisenberg told attendees at the Association of Community Cancer Centers National Oncology Conference. “Regardless of what happens to each patient — whether they live or die — the song lives on, and they live on through the song.”
Eisenberg — — discovered the healing power of music in 2005. At that time, he had a 1-year-old, his wife was pregnant and his community private practice was breaking up.
“My business relationships were so dysfunctional, we made the Kardashians look normal,” Eisenberg said. “I was worrying myself ill. I developed stress-induced colitis. Everything hurt, and I was only 35 years old.
“Fortunately, I got help, but not from a doctor,” he added. “What cured me wasn’t something I learned in fellowship or medical school. It wasn’t an article I read in JAMA or Journal of Clinical Oncology. It took one of my patients to teach me how to fully embrace life.”
The patient — an 80-year-old woman named Flavie — had stage IV lung cancer. Flavie’s husband had died in Vietnam, but she raised three children on her own and still fulfilled her dream of moving to Las Vegas to become a nightclub singer.
“One day I walked into her room, a big stress ball of an oncologist, and said, ‘How are you today, Flavie?’” Eisenberg recalled. “She said, ‘Forget about me. I’ve lived a full life, an I’m going to live a little bit longer for my kids. But you, Dr. E., how are you today?”
The question caught Eisenberg by surprise, and he answered the way he always did back then: He lied.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m fine. Busy but fine,” Eisenberg said. “She said, ‘Bull----. You look like crap.’ Then she said, ‘Dr. E., who takes care of you? You know, you’re not alone. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of all of us. Why don’t you talk to me?’ Something lifted in that deeply personal moment with one of my patients, a person who was so ill yet still able to reach out and penetrate my aloneness.”
Then Flavie shocked him again by saying: “Dr. E., you need to have some fun in your life. Care for a dance?”
Eisenberg said yes, and as they locked hands and began to glide around the hospital room, Flavie sang in his ear.
“I realized my aloneness was self-imposed,” Eisenberg said. “Over the next few months, I came to have a better connection with all of my patients. We worked in teams. We started looking up things together on the Internet and Googling clinical trials. We meditated together and shared laughs.”
Eisenberg, who had always been a songwriter, penned a piece for Flavie called “Generous Heart.” He soon began to write songs with his other patients. He asks them what moves them, touches them or inspires them. He jots down notes and, over time, they become the lyrics.
“I never thought about bringing a guitar into a chemotherapy room,” he said. “I never thought I could create something with a patient that could help them heal.”
The lessons Eisenberg learned extended far beyond music.
“I was a zombie of an oncologist, and Flavie shocked me back into life by giving me CPR — compassion, presence and resilience,” Eisenberg said. “She showed me compassion. She taught me presence, to be there fully with her in that dance. And I learned that true resilience was to allow myself to express the highest part of me, why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place: to bring joy to people who are fighting for their lives every day.”
Eisenberg encouraged conference attendees to remember a simple phrase: Illness starts with “I.” Wellness starts with “we.”
“It’s ultimately not about songwriting. It’s about a connection,” he said. “It may be as simple as asking a patient what their favorite song is, or asking them who their favorite comedian is and pulling up a two-minute YouTube clip to watch with them. It’s about sharing a moment. When you as a provider share with your patient, I really believe it will help you as the healer.” – by Mark Leiser
For more information:
Eisenberg SG. The Healing Power of Music. Presented at: Association of Community Cancer Centers National Oncology Conference; Oct. 18-20, 2017; Nashville, Tenn.
Disclosure: Eisenberg reports no relevant financial disclosures.