The best of two worlds

Balance in Practice

Victoria Werth, MD

This month's author writes about how she has long used music and performance to keep her perspective fresh.

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As a physician, one of the approaches I’ve valued most throughout my career is having a sense of perspective and thinking outside the status quo. As a lifelong musician, I’ve often felt that having friends and interests outside of medicine, and regularly spending time stepping into a different setting, has made my professional life much more interesting and productive.

Performing and splitting time

Music has been an important part of my life since childhood. I started playing violin at a very young age, then switched to viola around the time I started middle school. I played a lot of music growing up, and took lessons, and when I went to college, I continued studying and playing in a number of different groups.

I continued to study music seriously throughout the time I was in medical school at Johns Hopkins. I joined the music union and played with musicians from the Baltimore Symphony in a summer chamber music series at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

One December during medical school, I played in a Nutcracker orchestra during the holidays and got a good sense of what it would be like to be a professional musician. Looking back, medical school was probably the time I was most professionally engaged in playing music. Medical school can be a very all-encompassing kind of place. Playing at a professional level is the same way. Having friends who were doing music for a living and playing with these groups during the time I was in medical school gave me a very interesting ability to go back and forth between these two worlds.

Since that time, I’ve really just played for fun in different groups. Mostly, now, it’s an avocation, not a profession. I have a lot of fun playing with different chamber groups and quartets and having a group of friends outside of medicine. Every once in a while I’ll perform in concerts, but it’s usually something low-key, just for fun.[pagebreak]

Shared interests

Today, as a professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, my balance is tilted a little more toward medicine and my family, and less toward music as anything but a welcome diversion, I’m lucky enough to have children who play instruments. Two of my kids actually went to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute for the summer when they were in high school. It’s one of the top summer music programs in the country, providing training for young musicians who frequently want to play professionally. They ended up pursuing different career interests — one is in graduate school, one’s in medical school, and a third is in college — but they really enjoyed the program and still enjoy playing at a high level. It’s great to share that interest in music with my children.

Indeed, with me and three musical children, we have a family quartet for fun at home. Now that I don’t make quite the same time commitment to music as I used to, that’s a great way to share time with my family and reconnect with music at the same time. There are only 24 hours in a day, but my family has definitely helped me strike a balance in terms of not becoming totally absorbed by everything in medicine that can command your interest if you let it.[pagebreak]

Thinking differently

When you’re in a medical environment, if you’re passionate about something that isn’t medicine, that can help you be more confident about listening to your own voice, so to speak. Music helped me keep in touch with things that I find to be valuable for dermatology, and to think not just about the status quo but about how to make contributions that could be helpful to the field.

For instance, when I was just beginning my dermatology career in the early ’90s, it was pretty obvious to me that certain aspects of medical dermatology were fading away. I think that music gave me the confidence to realize that it would be okay to try to steer things in a slightly different direction. Luckily, I found other people who felt like I did. I was a founding member of the Rheumatologic Dermatology Society; I also co-founded the Medical Dermatology Society. I greatly enjoyed thinking outside of the status quo and being an advocate for parts of the field that I felt needed attention.

Richard Sontheimer, MD, with whom I co-founded the Medical Dermatology Society, also worked with me on a combined med/derm program, which combines internal medicine with dermatology. It’s really flourishing in a number of places and developing people who are really individualistic thinkers in terms of how they can integrate with the rest of medicine and further push the boundaries of the field. It’s really helping reconnect dermatology with its medicine roots.

My experience tells me that being confident in your outside interests can help you have a clear idea of how you want to contribute, so that you can find a path that might not be obvious. You can find a way to give back to the field and to people along the way. My advice is to find environments that are supportive of thinking outside the box. Maintain the ties that allow you to see beyond just a narrow view; they are vital to striking the correct balance in your life and career. Hold on to your interests outside of your professional field. They can open up a world of new options and ideas for you.