Physician heals himself and others through music
Surgeon who swops between scalpel and singing brings out his first album
It isn’t often that medicine and music clash, collide or coalesce – and, no, Dr Hook, Dr Feelgood and Dr John don’t count – but consultant vascular surgeon Austin Leahy is doing his very best to make sure it does.
Leahy has recently released his engaging debut album, In the Town of the Foreigner . The record has been a long time coming, but it certainly hasn’t been for lack of activity in the musical area.
“I grew up in quaint Dublin at a time when my family had musical evenings,” he recalls, “and we’d all be expected to sing. It was deadly boring – you’d have to perform in an evening of endless classical music and uncles reading poetry by Padraig Pearse. ”
Following a stint in the Palestrina Choir (“which was wonderful, and which gave me a great grounding in singing and music”), Leahy’s teenage years were spent listening to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and spirited tunes via the 1960s folk/ballad boom, and organising gigs in UCD. And then he qualified in medicine.
“At that point I knew I had to get serious, and music became not so predominant in my life.”
A lengthy career in medicine subsequently developed (Leahy is also professor of health science and management at the Royal College of Surgeons, editor-in-chief of the Surgeon Journal , founder of the Irish Society of Quality in Healthcare, past-president of the International Society of Quality in Healthcare, and past-president of the British Surgical Stapling Group), but Leahy had an itch he could neither scratch hard enough nor prescribe himself something to make it disappear.
“Music and medicine couldn’t be more opposite,” he posits. “Surgery or medicine is what I would term a very ‘outside’ profession. In other words, I react to things that happen.”
There is creativity within medicine, Leahy contends, but other people always dictate that. Whereas to be artistic, he says, you must work from the inside, regardless of what area of the arts you work in.
“I don’t want to sound highfalutin about it, but I find it difficult to write music if I’m in the middle of a busy period of work. I don’t stop in the middle of that and get inspired – if I go on holidays or have a weekend away, then that’s when the songs arrive. In many ways, however, both are a performance.”
Do the two disciplines or professions ever interconnect?
To a degree, Leahy states. “The creative side of your soul is how you deal with emotions and stress, and for some people there has to be an outlet for expression. In my case, my escape is writing music, and it’s something I just can’t stop myself from doing.
I’ve written hundreds of songs, some of which I’m sure are terrible. But that creative urge has to have expression, and that expression, I’m sure, makes me a better doctor.”
Songs driven by emotions
The songs on the album deal with emotions that have driven Leahy to write about the extremes of deep love, deep affection, deep upset and other things that can’t be summarily reconciled. “If someone my age didn’t have serious stuff to talk about on an album, then they shouldn’t be releasing one.”
And his eminent colleagues? What do they think?
“I would say one or two of them can’t understand why I’m doing it. For me, it’s quite simple – some people in music want to become famous, but I don’t. I’d certainly like to have enough traction to draw people to gigs – that’s essentially what I’m after. I’m giving oxygen to these songs because they are important to me.
“The notion of adulation or money is unimportant. I just want to play, and I’d like people to appreciate the music.”
Summer festival gigs
To that end, Leahy is prepping for a slew of summer festival gigs in tow with one of the album’s strategic collaborators, former Hothouse Flower member, Wayne Sheehy (who also produced the record).
Leahy is rightly proud of his debut album; he has been involved in a lesser way with recording before, but this is the first time he has put his name on something.
“It won’t be the last,” he adds, before admitting full awareness as to where his priorities lay.
“In his book, Love, Medicine and Miracles, Bernie Segal wrote that the medical profession are only tourists in other people’s diseases.
“I’m very conscious of that – when you’re dealing with patients you’ve got to be able to let them rule you because it’s their disease. You can’t tell them what to do . . .”
For a free download of Austin Leahy’s song, Dear Martha , and further details on gig dates, visit austinleahymusic.com