The music of medicine

The sky in Varkala, Kerala

‘PLAY IT AGAIN’ I demanded from Leo. Always happy to listen to his own work, he set up the speaker and played his musical creation. I sat back in my creaky wooden chair and looked out across the palm trees as I let the sound wash over me. In the sky I could see eagles circling overhead. A strange sight I’d now got used to in Kerala – where instead of sea gulls, their beaches have eagles. The sky was faint blue turning to orange as the sun set. As I listened to Leo’s piece, I was stuck by a strange mixture of emotions. Nostalgia, sadness, pain, excitement. It’s incredible what the piece has come to mean for me.

We were set an incredibly boring piece of homework by the university, called a ‘DPP’. I diligently completed my coursework in the most boring way possible. Over the past 4 years of training within the NHS, I’ve become accustomed to jumping through the necessary hoops. Sometimes passion and flair just hold you back, and you need to just get the job done and save yourself the aggravation of getting emotionally invested in your work. Leo actually read my project and found it even more painfully boring to read that it was for me to write it.

But for his ‘DPP’, Leo managed to push forwards and create a work filled with passion and emotion. I think we’re all a bit flabbergasted by what he managed to make. A piece of music that captures what it’s like to be in A&E, as a healthcare practitioner, patient, family member. Anyone really.

In the words of the Emergency Department consultant Dr Sue West-Jones – who we’ve all come to look up to as a kind of Goddess- in a message to Leo:

‘It conveys the intensity of the noise of the department yet turns the noise into the sounds of life, sounds that save lives and sounds that sometimes describe the ebb of life.

These are sounds which have filled my life as an ED clinician – very powerful sounds that can easily add to the stress of my role, but you have given them beauty and clarity.’

Leo started off just making the piece for a bit of fun, but it’s evolved into so much more. He managed to get access to A&E with a sound recorder – I think it was a proper one, I imagine it being big and fluffy. After having the necessary clearances, he recorded sounds from all the machines and the general non-stop screech that A&E emits. He recorded a drip machine, blood gas analyser, doctor phones, alarms and more. He was in smart work clothes whilst taking these recordings rather than scrubs – not wanting patients to think he was in his role as a healthcare practitioner. As a result a few of our colleagues became mildly alarmed by his appearance, briefly believing him to be part of some sort of inspection process (‘ARE YOU FROM INFECTION CONTROL!?’).

Ynys Môn, a few minutes from our cottage where we stayed for GP placement

With the sounds in hand he set about creating. The process started in our mouldy house in Swansea at our electric piano, but would take Leo all over Wales as he visited different hospitals. The cello part was recorded in our little house overlooking the bay on Ynys Môn, an island in North Wales where we worked with GPs. Cramped in the little loft overlooking the sea, he toiled away playing the same bits of cello over and over again. It’s something I really admire in musicians, and something I’ll never understand as an inpatient and fairly intolerant person.

Our friends visited us on Ynys Môn and listened to the piece. I loved seeing the mixture of emotion on their faces as they listened to it. The music speaks to something deep inside you, something that you can’t articulate with words.

Recording the trumpet part with Lewis on Ynys Môn

And now here we were in India, approaching the end of our journey as medical students. Coming to somewhere so far away, I wondered how our medical cultures would be different. And sure enough, lots of things are different. Snake bites, for example. And submersion injuries. And lots of late presentations that sadly ended in the need for a transplant. But what struck me and Leo the most were the similarities. The deep well of emotion that Leo’s music explores unites us all, especially post-pandemic where worldwide we’ve experienced a similar shitstorm.

So sat in India I breathed in the sweet, hot air, and – in the line NHS practice – reflected on the years I’ve just had. It’s hard to put it into words. But I think Leo’s piece describes it perfectly.

You can listen to it here:

With thanks to the Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences

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