ROCHESTER, Minn. — Saxophone and surgery don’t usually go hand in hand, but Dr. Joseph Dearani practices both music and medicine.
He’s the chairman of Cardiovascular Surgery at Mayo Clinic and a professor of surgery in the Mayo College of Medicine, but he also tries to make time each morning to practice jazz saxophone. He said playing sax helps him clear his mind before he starts his day.
Dearani puts a lot of heart into his work. He’s been a surgeon for the past 25 years, and his work has changed his patients' lives. He treats congenital heart defects, heart arrhythmias, heart failure, and heart valve disease.
Last year, he became president of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the largest cardiothoracic surgery organization in the world, with 8,000 international members. He was a member for 20 years before becoming president.
For his final address as president, he combined his love of jazz with his passion for thoracic surgery. He incorporated recordings of himself with his Rochester-based jazz group, Take Two and Friends, playing several versions of Charlie Chaplin’s famous song “Smile.”
Dearani, along with pianist Bryan Wattier, bassist Michael Sloane and drummer Randy Nelson, recorded the song at Carpet Booth Studios in Rochester.
“The global pandemic, social injustice, political divide, and natural disaster wildfires have tested each and every one of us, and have forever changed the way we work and will live life moving forward,” he said in his address Saturday, Jan. 30.
He asked his colleagues to focus on the hopeful lyrics: "Light up your face with gladness/ Hide every trace of sadness/ Although a tear may be ever so near/ That’s the time you must keep on trying/ Smile, what’s the use of crying?/ You’ll find that life is still worthwhile/ If you’ll just/ Smile."
“Looking for the common good supersedes the sum of what is good for individuals," he told the virtual audience. "It’s our collective responsibility to defend the needs of everyone, particularly those less fortunate.”
What do you find most rewarding as a cardiothoracic surgeon?
The relatively quick, effective recoveries for most patients. The expectation is a successful recovery for most all patients, and it is relatively prompt — weeks — and they go on to school, work and being functional members of society.
How does it feel leaving your post as president of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons?
2020 was a very difficult year, and not what I had envisioned. With that said, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Why was it important to you to include music in your presentation?
Cardiac surgery is stressful, and requires a great deal of focus and attention to detail. Balance in one’s life is essential for professional satisfaction and happiness. Music is a wonderful way to balance work — technical challenges, intellectual challenges, enjoyment and peacefulness.
How has jazz saxophone figured into your calling as a surgeon?
Surgery is a balance of structured steps and improvised steps. The OR team and surgical team have many parallels with a group of musicians — leaders and followers (supporting roles), clear communication, careful and intentional listening, and respect for each other.
What was it like recording at Carpet Booth Studios?
I wanted to choose a classic song that can be both sad and happy, depending on how it is played. "Smile" accomplishes this, and everyone recognizes it. The opening is a tenor saxophone that is very somber and sad (the beginning of 2020 — COVID, social injustice, natural disaster wild fires, etc.). The other versions gradually add instruments, and the tempo gradually increases. The last version is a full-band, upbeat version that symbolizes hope and optimism — leaving 2020 and moving into 2021 with a vaccination.
Are there any parallels between performing jazz and performing surgeries?
I taught a leadership class at Mayo using music as a metaphor with the band. There is a parallel between the players on a bandstand and the operating room staff, or other teams of people working together to achieve a goal.