For most mere mortals the chances of becoming a surgeon are slim at best. The chances of landing a record deal are even more minute. The chances of doing both? Impossible.
Unless you’re Chuck Brunicardi – country/folk singer and Chief of General surgery at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.
Dr. Charles Brunicardi, who makes his home in Pacific Palisades, has received numerous awards for his work in medicine but his most recent accolade is a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his newly released album, “Where Sunset Meets the Beach.”
Life looks quiet different than it did when Brunicardi found himself playing shows on the New Jersey bar scene, but his passion for music remains an important element of his multifaceted career.
While in medical school at what is now Rutgers University New Jersey School of Medicine, Brunicardi was signed to two record labels, Charisma and RSO.
“In medical school, I would sit at my desk and study for an hour then take a break and write a song on my guitar. Then I’d go back to studying,” he said. “Maybe that’s called ADHD. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.”
By his final year in medical school, Brunicardi saw two successful careers unfolding before him. The James Taylor fan had a choice to make.
“I realized I didn’t want to have a career in music or entertainment, and I decided to concentrate on becoming a surgeon,” he said. “I didn’t stop playing or listening to music, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my career.”
Despite his choice to stick to surgical instruments over musical ones, the doctor estimates he has written about 150 complete songs – all while balancing his responsibilities as the chief of surgery and raising a blended family of five teenagers.
If you ask his fiancée Robbi Sanchez how they make it work, she will let you in on a little secret.
“First of all, he’s not human,” she said. “He doesn’t need sleep, and he can multitask better than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Brunicardi admits he’s able to survive on as little as three hours of sleep each night – it’s how he found time to serve as the editor-in-chief of the world’s leading general-surgery text, Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery while writing and recording a full-length album.
“Whatever I’m doing in the moment, I am completely focused on that task,” he said. “When I am in the operating room, it has my full attention, and I am completely focused.”’
The same is true in the recording studio.
Brunicardi relied on the same hyper-focused dedication when he recorded his debut album in an intensive two-day recording session in Nashville last spring.
“We worked with some of the best musicians in the world,” he said. “Nashville was amazing. It was the only place we could fully record 12 songs in two days. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life, period.”
A life-long music aficionado, Brunicardi grew up singing in the all-county choir and played guitar for an all-state jazz band, and while he’s most inspired by Cat Stevens, the British invasion of The Beatles and Joni Mitchell, he has a fond appreciation of the ‘Top 40’ genre.
“Pop music is the greatest art form. It’s the form of art that people come into contact with more than any other form every single day,” said the self-proclaimed student of pop. “Pop songs have a magical quality of taking you right back to wherever you were when you first heard them.”
While some may see a major disconnect between the creative process of writing music and the methodical medical field, Brunicardi sees it all as one in the same.
“Music and medicine are both creative processes,” he said. “When I’m working in research, I’m making new discoveries and putting the pieces together like a story. It’s the same way I write a song. I created a melody that evokes an image and then I find the right words.”
Whether it’s with a chord progression or cancer treatment, Brunicardi is making his mark. After joining UCLA’s surgical team in 1989, Brunicardi moved to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he became the DeBakey/Bard Professor and Chair of the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery. In was in the Lone State the doctor discovered a “master switch” for pancreatic cancer that successfully eliminates pancreatic cancer cells in mice.
Currently, he is applying for permission to launch a Phase 1 clinical trial in humans – his fiancée by his side.
Formerly a professional dancer in the Houston Ballet, Sanchez also moved from the arts into a career in medicine and now works as a research assistant at UCLA Medical Center.
She said being able to work in the research department is the most rewarding part of coming back to a career in science.
Despite the busy schedule of two medical professionals and five teenagers, spending time together is high on their list of priorities.
“Our family is so busy, but we have dinner together every night, everything stops and it’s the one time we all come together during the day. It’s the little things every day that keep us grounded.”
Recently Brunicardi was named the Moss Foundation Chair of Gastrointestinal and Personalized Surgery in what seemed to be a harmonious blend of music and medicine.
Jerry Moss of the Moss Foundation is the same Jerry Moss who co-founded A&M Records and who was responsible for signing classic recording artists like Cat Stevens.
“I was so thrilled and honored to be paired with the Moss Foundation. It is such an honor and really, what are the chances? They have signed some of my favorite artists,” Brunicardi said. “It makes sense though, because music is medicine.”
Visit chuckbrunicardi.com. Album available on Amazon, iTunes.