Doctors make time to pursue their passions
Christopher Gallagher is a linguist and author who frequently translates Spanish, French and German, but professionally he's neither interpreter nor full-time writer.
Gallagher has a lot in common with other physicians he has never met:
Paul Kolker is an artist who also holds a law degree; John Clarke is a hip-hop composer and singer; and concert pianist Len Horovitz has been dazzling audiences at Carnegie Hall for decades, performing Chopin, Liszt and Bach.
They all draw from a deep and storied well: Doctors who pursue interests outside medicine but continue their daily practice, excelling in them all.
For centuries, doctors have written novels, invented medical devices, founded businesses and won major prizes in the arts.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Carlos Williams, writer of "Pictures from Brueghel" and one of the 20th century's most celebrated wordsmiths, was a pediatrician in New Jersey. Robin Cook, the author of numerous medical thrillers, is a practicing ear, nose and throat specialist in Manhattan.
The movie "Coma," based on Cook's book of the same name, was directed by Michael Crichton, the Harvard-trained physician, who died in 2008. Crichton garnered a worldwide reputation as an innovative writer of blockbuster medical fiction and science fiction, such as the movie "Jurassic Park," the television medical drama "ER" and the book "The Andromeda Strain."
"Art has always been a prime moving force in all that I have done, even throughout medical school and law school," said Kolker, 76, former chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Glen Cove Hospital.
Horovitz, 61, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, which is a division of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, was a child prodigy whose piano talent was evident to family members years before he applied to medical school. Born with an extra thumb, Horovitz underwent a series of excruciating hand surgeries as a child that both improved his ability to play and inspired a love for medicine.
Gallagher, 54, an anesthesiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center, is the son and grandson of physicians, who were also writers. He said he acquired his love of languages from his dad.
"I've had the good fortune of knowing physicians with a lot of fascinating, multiple interests -- people who do all sorts of cool things," Gallagher said.
Straddling multiple worlds is seen as vital by some experts who cite medicine's growing complexity.
"Practicing medicine is getting harder and harder, and I worry about physicians who don't have outside interests," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist at NYU Medical Center who is also a best-selling nonfiction author, television medical journalist, budding novelist and manager of NYU's radio station.
Siegel said it's not difficult budgeting time for interests beyond medicine. The key, he noted, is having the courage to pursue a passion.
"My kids tell me that I have five careers," he said.
He thinks 19th century physician and dramatist Anton Chekhov best summed up the multi-interest physician.
"Chekhov said he considered medicine his wife," Siegel said, "but writing was his mistress."
A talent for artDr. Paul Kolker's paintings hang in Hofstra University's medical school.
As an open-heart surgeon, his skill in the surgical suite has helped save the lives of hundreds of Long Islanders. But he recently stepped away from medicine, affording him more time to devote to art.
"I am now emeritus chief of cardiothoracic surgery," said Kolker, of Old Westbury. "I stopped doing surgery about a year and a half ago. I was 75 years old at that time; I am 76 now. It just seemed like an opportune time not to take the calls and to allow younger people to do that."
Even though he has a law degree, Kolker has never practiced law. His art has been exhibited 33 times in a career that grew alongside his role in medicine.
Kolker's study of painting began as a youngster.
"My parents sent me to learn to oil paint," he said. "I don't have a formal degree in art as most people in studio art do now."
For the past dozen years, he has had a studio in Chelsea, but he notes: "I've always had a studio in my home. This is part of my persona. My art, at least recently and certainly in the last 11 years, is based on our emergence into a digital age, and in a digital era you see everything factually without sensitivity," Kolker said.
The dot-grid, which pervades his paintings, can play with the observer's eye. From a distance, an image may appear to be that of a face, but up close, the series of dots is more of an abstract, like random pixels.
"I have composed more than 40 songs," said Clarke, who has also formed a company to distribute CDs of his musical productions.
"In 1997, while I was a resident, I did a study to determine whether it was possible to effectively reach teenagers using rap music," Clarke added. "The study went very well because it showed they actually learned from the rap."
Clarke is lead singer and musician; his wife, Elizabeth, a nurse practitioner, sings backup.
"My wife is really not a rapper, but I need a female vocalist and she is willing to help out," Clarke said with a laugh.
He is also the father of four: A son, 6; a daughter, 3, and 1-year-old twin sons. His oldest son has sung on one of his dad's rap productions. "I'm sure when the others are older they'll want to get involved, too," Clarke said.
Three years ago during the swine flu scare, he won a national contest for the best public service announcement. Titled "H1N1 Rap," it was part of a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Clarke was chosen by the public from among 10 finalists.
"I do all the music myself," he said. "I put in roughly 100 hours to pull a song together. I record it, mix it and master it. It's a creative process and I really enjoy it."
A humble virtuosoDr. Len Horovitz is modest about his exceptional accomplishments.
As a piano soloist, he has appeared at Carnegie Hall nine times since 1979. His most recent performance was this past spring. Horovitz has been a finalist in the prestigious international Van Cliburn piano competition and has accompanied leading sopranos.
"I certainly never intended to become a concert pianist," Horovitz said. "Being a pianist is a very isolated life. You have to practice -- and practice a lot.
"I am not an isolated person. I like people and I love the field of medicine, and I have a fascination with other people's stories."
Still, he is often asked whether he plans a career change.
"I tell them absolutely not," Horovitz said. "I have had wonderful opportunities collaborating with wonderful professional artists and playing all over New York City. But even that has not persuaded me to change careers," added Horovitz, who hails from a talented family. His sister is writer Nancy Bachrach, whose novel "The Center of Universe" includes a character modeled after her brother.
Neither medicine nor the piano would have been easy, Horovitz said, without several surgeries on his right hand.
"I was born with three thumbs, two on my right hand and one on my left," he said. "I had surgeries throughout my childhood."
A love of language
Dr. Christopher Gallagher, of Stony Brook, has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, primarily on medical topics, and has spent countless years teaching himself to speak several languages. He estimates fluency in about 12.
Between cases in Stony Brook's emergency department, he is seated at a long desk, going through flash cards as he teaches himself Vietnamese.
"This is the latest challenge," said Gallagher, who noted never encountering a language he didn't want to learn, although he acknowledges having trouble with a few.
"I've never made great progress with Arabic," he said. "It's quite complex, and the pronunciation and grammar are very daunting."
The book Gallagher authored that brings him the most pride is "The Cellars of Marcelcave: A Yank Doctor in the BEF." It's the story -- and largely the words -- of his grandfather, Dr. Bernard Gallagher, an American who served in the British Expeditionary Force during World War I.
The elder Gallagher was part of a 1,500-physician contingent dispatched by the U.S. government to fill the depleted ranks of the British Army.
WWI also marked the modern era's first global flu pandemic, sometimes called the Spanish Flu.
"He caught it right after he had been liberated from a prisoner of war camp, and he got pretty sick," Gallagher said.
Gallagher emphasized that he's completely rooted in his three loves: medicine, languages and the power of the written word.
"Everything you become in life takes a million steps," he said. "I know some physicians think that because they're physicians they can do anything. But it's really about interests, talents and a million steps."