Like many surgeons, F. Charles Brunicardi, MD, finds that music in the operating room helps him to concentrate and focus while he works. His preference leans toward the soft rock of James Taylor and Cat Stevens, but if he wanted to, he could throw a little Chuck B. into the mix.
If he did, that would bring his twin passions — medicine and music — full circle. In addition to keeping a busy schedule as chief of general surgery at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Dr. Brunicardi recently completed an album of his own original folk/country music, Where Sunset Meets the Beach.
“Music and medicine are both creative processes,” says Dr. Brunicardi, who, when he isn’t penning songs, is editor-in-chief of the world’s leading general-surgery text, Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery. “In medicine, especially if you are doing research, you are discovering new knowledge and putting together a story, just like you would when writing a song.”
Music has always been a presence in Dr. Brunicardi’s life. The home in which he grew up in New Jersey had three record players, and his father, an electrician by day, played jazz guitar with a band called The Townsmen. As a child, Dr. Brunicardi sang in the all-county choir and played guitar for an all-state jazz band that performed in Atlantic City. When he was 7 years old, he performed the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration “All the Things You Are” for an audience of 1,000.
While Dr. Brunicardi was pre-med at The Johns Hopkins University, he and a friend formed a band called Rodeo Rick that played in frat houses, coffee shops and pubs around Baltimore. As a student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (what is now Rutgers University New Jersey School of Medicine), Dr. Brunicardi was signed to two record labels, Charisma and RSO. In between his studies and medical rotations, he managed to write and record some 25 songs, and in the summers of 1978 and ’79, he played at England’s Cambridge Folk Festival, on the bill with such performers as Don McLean and Richie Havens.
Like some of his musical heroes, Dr. Brunicardi’s singing voice has a tonal purity that is almost childlike in its clarity. He frequently bursts into unexpected laughter, and his blue eyes light up when he talks about music. “I still think pop music is the greatest art form,” says Dr. Brunicardi, who today owns 11 guitars, including one that belonged to Eric Clapton and another signed by the Rolling Stones. “Pop songs have a magical quality of taking you right back to wherever you were when you first heard them.”
However, an event while he was in his final year of medical school changed the course of his life: His musical hero, John Lennon, was killed. “I realized I was done with entertainment and decided to concentrate on surgery,” he says. “I didn’t stop playing or listening to music, but it became just a passion hobby.”
Dr. Brunicardi first joined UCLA’s surgical faculty in 1989; in 1995, he went to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he became the DeBakey/Bard Professor and Chair of the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery. While in Texas, as a dedicated researcher, Dr. Brunicardi discovered a “master switch” for pancreatic cancer, an insulin-regulating transcription factor called PDX1 that, when silenced with RNA interference or knockdown therapy, eliminates pancreatic-cancer cells in mice. He has partnered with a biotechnology company, Gradalis, Inc., to produce a bifunctional short hairpin RNA that silences the transcription factor and is applying for permission to launch a Phase 1 clinical trial in humans.
In 2011, he returned to UCLA, and he recently was named the Moss Foundation Chair of Gastrointestinal and Personalized Surgery. Being named to that particular chair highlights an intriguing merger of his enthusiasms; Jerry Moss, who with his wife Ann endowed the chair, is the “M” in the legendary A&M Records, which recorded some of Dr. Brunicardi’s favorite artists, including Cat Stevens and Joan Baez.
“Of all the chairs for me to get, I can’t describe how deeply honored and thrilled I was to get the Moss Foundation Chair,” Dr. Brunicardi says. “They didn’t know about my interest in music and I think were surprised to learn that all of my favorite artists were with A&M Records.”
Returning to Los Angeles also has given his musical career a new start. An OR nurse who heard Dr. Brunicardi’s music on the website ReverbNation, introduced him to her husband, Mark Dearnley, a sound engineer for the likes of Paul McCartney, AC/DC and Jewel. Dearnley was impressed, and he helped Dr. Brunicardi assemble an album of his 12 best songs. This summer, they spent two days in Nashville with some top studio musicians recording Where Sunset Meets the Beach.
That heady experience, however, didn’t have much time to linger. On his return from the recording session, Dr. Brunicardi went straight from the airport to the hospital to perform a colon resection.
Kim Kowsky is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
This article first appeared in U Magazine.