Connecting With Neurology Patients Through Music

July 9, 2019
Heidi Moawad, MD

,
William S. Baek, MD, FAAN

An interview with a neurologist who found that merely writing medical articles cannot express the impact an illness can have on patients, both literally and emotionally.

Q&A

In this interview, neurologist William S. Baek, MD, FAAN explains how he discovered that, for him, merely writing medical articles cannot express the impact an illness can have on a patient, both literally and emotionally. Dr Baek, a board-certified neurologist through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, is Clinical Associate Professor, University of California Riverside; Fellow, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine; and Diplomate, American Board of Disability Analysts. He works as a general neurologist in private practice in Upland, CA.

Heidi Moawad, MD: What inspired you to consider writing music as a way to express feelings about neurological disease?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: I always loved music; I learned how to play the piano when I was 10 and then played the trombone in our medical school orchestra and at Harvard Summer School Band. I also sang in our church choir for 2 years. I wrote poetry since premed and have some poetry published on poetry.com. I’ve always loved singing and have taking voice lessons since 2012.

I have always wanted to have my own album, but I wasn’t sure what my niche was. One day after listening to my patients in clinic it hit me that by writing songs based on my clinical experience could be a great way to raise patient awareness, and perhaps comfort and heal patients. It was a great way to marry my musical and poetic skills.

Then one of my friends from work introduced me to my producer Stephane, and that is when everything really materialized. He took me very seriously, shared my vision, and liked my songs. We finished recording my first album right before Thanksgiving 2017 and released my first album in January 2018 under his record label.

My first album includes 10 songs, each of which has been inspired by a particular neurological condition or some type of clinical scenario, such as Alzheimer disease, multiple sclerosis/spinal cord injury, stroke, Parkinson disease, ALS, myasthenia gravis, child/elder abuse, our children (especially orphans and the 2014 tragedy in Korea (the sinking of Sewol ferry), moms who take care of their disabled children (in Spanish), and a mom losing her own child.

The album is being distributed through Kobalt music to over 35 platforms across the globe, including iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, iheartradio.com, etc.

Heidi Moawad, MD: Do you think that music gives your patients a voice in a way that isn't possible with other modalities?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: Yes, because through music I can reach millions of people across the globe within minutes and not only can I convey the message but also the emotions of the song. I realized that just by writing medical articles, one cannot express the impact an illness has on an individual both literally and emotionally.

Heidi Moawad, MD: Has the music been therapeutic for patients? For doctors?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: I think so. I have shared my music mostly with patient support groups, which I recognized as my target audience, and it seems like it has been therapeutic. Doctors have told me that my music has been inspiring and it probably reveals something about me that they were unaware of. I have performed my songs at the MS Walk in Fontana, CA, last year and also at a Family Medicine conference in Disneyland. I think the performance at the MS Walk was far more emotional and had a deeper connection, because I could perceive their genuine interest. Afterwards a man came up to me and thanked me, which was really touching.

Surprisingly, my music has also been therapeutic for me. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I released my album because this was a dream come true.

Heidi Moawad, MD: When and how did you learn to write music?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: I started writing songs back in medical school; I remember I would have my lined notebook and jot down notes and melodies that were in my head. I never had any formal training or education, but based on my musical background, I have enough basic knowledge to write down the music. Writing music is not something you can sit down and plan to do; the song just “hits” you, both the lyrics and the melody, all of a sudden. I wrote the music (but not the lyrics) for the song Love Again, which was inspired by patients with ALS, back in 2005, when I was working at the ALS clinic at UC San Diego.

Heidi Moawad, MD: What type of feedback have you received?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: Mostly it has been positive. Patients have thanked me. I was a little worried when I shared my song In My Tears to moms who have lost their child but they all took it very well. I have about 120 direct fans worldwide through radioairplay.com, which is exciting because these people truly like my music without knowing anything about me. Rarely do I get negative feedback, but I realize that this happens all the time, and I have decided to just brush this aside.

Heidi Moawad, MD: What are your future plans regarding your music?

William S Baek, MD, FAAN: I recorded my second album in Bordeaux, France, just this past month. My second album includes 15 songs (my first album had 10). There is a Christmas song and a Christian song. The songs are in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Korean/Japanese. The motifs are wisdom, ADHD, social rebellion, individualism, divorce/breakups, self-identity, kenosis, palliative care, the meaning of life, social isolation, romantic or spiritual abandonment, diligence, becoming a widow/widower or death of a loved one, fighting against bureaucracy, redemption/born again, and remembering those overseas or who have died or live far away over the holidays. My second album will be released in October 2019, before Christmas, since there is a Christmas song as well.

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