“Play all the musics. Climb all the things.”
That was the last text Benjamin Robison received from his friend and fellow Stanford medical student Maria Birukova before her tragic death climbing last year. In addition to sharing a love of medicine, Robison and Birukova shared a passion for climbing, and for music.
Robison honored his friend during “The Still Point: medicine from the inside,” an interactive evening of music, art, storytelling and sound painting, by playing an original violin piece designed to evoke his friend’s infectious, generous spirit.
Robison, along with Matthew Wetschler, MD, created the production — with support from the university, the School of Medicine and the Medicine & the Muse Shenson Innovation Grant — to share the message of their healing from trauma, burnout and depression through art and music. Wetschler said he experienced emotional exhaustion and burnout as a Stanford resident in emergency medicine and decided to take time off from residency. “But taking time off is a generous way of saying it,” he said. “What happened is that one day I broke.” As Wetschler told the story of how he found himself in the ER crying uncontrollably, images of Wetschler’s blood-red paintings, created during his time away from residency, flashed on the screen, while Robison played accompanying music on the violin and keyboard. The artwork and music added layers of experience for the audience as they listened to Wetschler recount his experience.
“As physicians we are trained in self-denial and self-depravation. We don’t value caring for ourselves, even as we care for our patients. Taking time off forced me to sit with myself and realize that I had lost my voice,” he said.
Wetschler began healing by rediscovering his love of art and by allocating time to paint. “I am not a religious person, but what I realized about my father’s Jewish faith tradition is that it gave architecture to time, and that architecture created sanctuary. How healthy would it be if we could all be still long enough to hear our inner voice and to find our sanctuary? For me, it is art, for Ben it is music.”
As Wetschler concluded his story, the image of his painting “Poesis” (the Greek word from which the word poetry is derived) projected on the screen. It showed a sea of black with a ball of light that seemed to represent the Wetschler’s newly found voice, as Robison’s music swelled.
Wetschler and Robison then split the audience, comprised of physicians, medical students and community members, into six groups and asked the groups to form a circle in the room. Each group was then given a set of sounds and words (i.e. “breathe like Darth Vader” or “repeat these words, ‘The pressure remains elevated'” ) as Robison served as a “conductor” to orchestra a “sound picture” created by the performance of each group. As the groups gathered to practice their parts, initial nervousness and shyness dissolved as participants enthusiastically rendered their portion of the orchestra, with all of the groups coming together at the end to create a lovely, harmonious sound Robison titled “The Tribe of All.”
Wetschler and Robison will now take their production on the road; Future performances are scheduled at Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine and Southern Methodist University’s School of Music.
Previously: What art and the humanities bring to medicine: a look from Stanford Medicine magazine and Stanford Medicine's Open Mic: Using music and art to express the human connection
Image of the painting, "It's Hard Loving You Closely," by Matthew Wetschler