For North County oncologist Dr. Steven G. Eisenberg, music’s undeniable power helps him bring new meaning to the term “bedside manner.”
He writes songs for his patients.
Board-certified in medical oncology and hematology, Eisenberg guides his patients through their treatment. He practices at California Cancer Associates for Research and Excellence (cCARE).
Lightheartedly labeling himself cCare’s “CCO” (Chief Creative Officer), Eisenberg often presents patients under his care with a song he wrote for — and about — them.
“These are not just random songs,” Eisenberg noted. “The patients are the co-writers. I’m taking their love and inspirations. Even as we’re writing the song, they remember things, like their creativity or how they were as a child.
“When I sing it for them, their receptors are firing. In many cases, I see a fog lifting. They may be suffering not only from ‘chemo-brain’ — which is very difficult — but depression, anxiety and fear. I want to bring love, light and music to cancer patients.”
It all started when …
Eisenberg first picked up an old guitar while studying at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. After teaching himself to play, he began to write songs, which became a way for him to relax during the stress of medical training.
As a physician at cCARE, he would occasionally bring his instrument and perform for patients undergoing chemotherapy. In the early 2000s, Eisenberg treated a popular Carlsbad-based piano teacher, nicknamed Chucky, who had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
Eisenberg recalled the conversations he and Chucky had about the healing power of music. The patient described how teaching music to his young students helped him battle through his chemotherapy. As he took a turn for the worse, Eisenberg was inspired to write a song.
“It was called ‘Teaching Me,’” the oncologist said. “First I had some lyrics: ‘You’re teaching me to learn, to love.’ It was all about giving and teaching. Then came a specific melody. I was blessed to give him and his wife the song.
“At (Chucky’s) celebration of life, his wife asked his students to play their favorite songs he’d taught them. Then I sang the song, touching on his love for his wife and students, and the importance of giving back. My very first song and I took that leap. After that beautiful experience, there was no turning back.”
It’s about the patient
Eisenberg has treated Roger Gagos, 74, for about eight years. The Escondido resident has multiple myeloma, a hematological (blood) cancer that develops in the plasma cells in bone marrow.
The doctor had a suggestion as Gagos started his chemotherapy. After the patient’s hour-long treatments, Eisenberg recommended that Gagos, a guitarist, and his fiddler wife, Gretchen, play their Americanacq music for the other patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
“Some people have to sit there for six or seven hours, so we played a little music for them,” recalled Gagos, whose remarkable five-year remission ended last year. “Dr. Steven treats the person — not the disease. He is extremely caring and extremely competent. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
After two years of being under Eisenberg’s care, Gagos and his wife were presented with a song the doctor had written for them.
“He interviews you and then synthesizes a song based on your dreams and hopes,” Gagos explained. “Our song was moving because it was about our plans for the future. We had been full-time RV’ers and traveled all around the country. We wanted to do that again. It’s not going to happen now. My wife had a stroke and we’re older.
“The important thing is that he’s the most human doctor I’ve ever met.”
The song-writing process
During his regular and after-hour visits with his patients, Eisenberg takes copious notes. He asks such questions as: “What moves and inspires you?” “What do you love about life?” “What makes you smile?”
Eisenberg reviews his notes, circling phrases that reflect what he sees as clues to the patient.
“I let things marinate for a day or two,” he said. “Before you know it, it turns into lyrics and then a melody.
“If we can impact their brain even one or two percent, they will be able to see themselves more clearly and see the love they have in their life. They feel the creative juices running through their veins.”
Wood is a San Diego freelance writer.
Where words fail, music speaks
Although he’s not a songwriter, Dr. William Stanton, medical director of the Scripps Cancer Center at Scripps Mercy Hospital, brings aural comfort to his patients. While he insists he is not a great musician, he has been playing classical guitar for almost two decades.
A couple of times a week, Stanton plays his guitar in the infusion center, where patients must stay for hours at a time. He joked that they’re a captive audience, but said he has received requests.
“When you begin to play with any skill at all, you become part of the instrument and it becomes a part of you,” Stanton said. “I get terribly emotional when I play. The guitar allows me to express emotions and is a window to meditation for me.
“For the patients, it relieves anxiety and allows them to escape to a world of harmony and melody, a world of beauty. Any interaction with the creative part of the brain is helpful.”
Stanton believes the classical guitar is especially suited to such endeavors. Its dynamics can be rendered soft, he explained, and it resonates well in the ear. He maintains that there is almost a mystical connection between music and medicine.
“A number of physicians consider music a part of their lives,” he said. “You’ll find them in community orchestras, jazz bands and many different genres. The best medicine is practiced by the both sides of the brain.
“Sometimes patients become so emotional they can’t talk. Hans Christian Andersen said: ‘Where words fail, music speaks.’ If patients break down, you play and they tend to recover. And they can continue talking. If they are sad, an interlude of music can help.”