Imagine performing spinal surgery that will allow a young woman to walk again. Then, later that day, performing a second surgery on a professional violinist to relieve debilitating lower back pain. Next, rounds at two hospitals, office visits, and clinical work. Finally, home for the evening with the ever-present pager attached at the hip. But the day is hardly over for Dr. David John Yeh, a California-based neurosurgeon who surgically treats brain and spine problems. He's got a date... and it's with Kreutzer.
Yes, Dr. Yeh is not only a highly respected surgeon, he’s also an accomplished violinist who is just as likely to be seen with his fiddle as his scalpel. When I heard he was going to perform in my town (Knoxville, Tenn.), I couldn’t wait to meet him and hear him play. And he completely shattered all my preconceived notions.
Picture a stereotypical neurosurgeon straight out of central casting, then conjure up the polar opposite. The good doctor could be age 25 or 45. It depends entirely on what he's talking about. A smile can instantly erase a decade from his face. His shoulder length dark hair is dusted with gray. He's trim and fashionable in pants and a jacket that are pretending to be a suit while looking far cooler. And then there are the boots with a skull image embroidered on the side. (I’m not kidding.) If you think his persona sounds contrived, trust me, it isn't. David is as natural and organic in his presentation as he is in his approach to music and medicine. And he’s as thoughtful and sincere as he is talented and accomplished.
A product of the public school system in Knoxville, Tennessee, David began violin at age 10 in a school string program. He started studying privately a few years later after a move to Chattanooga, and went on to earn his college degree in violin performance at the University of New Orleans. (His senior thesis, titled "Neurophysiology of Violin Playing," certainly forecast things to come.) But unlike most music majors, he completed all the requisite math and science courses needed to qualify as "pre-med." His father, Stephen Yeh, an engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority, made sure of it.
As David explained his father’s rationale, "Think of a young violinist practicing Carl Flesch. Once you master it, you can start to explore what the violin has to offer. The same is true in learning math and science fundamentals." And that rationale proved to be the golden ticket for David — he became a first-class surgeon and musician.
So why the official career detour from music to medicine?
The 12-Year-Old Boy and Ravel’s Tzigane
The summer after David’s junior year in college, he participated in Charles Castleman’s prestigious summer quartet program. He heard a 12-year old boy perform Ravel’s fiendishly difficult Tzigane, a piece David had been struggling with for months. According to David, "This kid didn’t even tune his violin. Yet, Ravel was effortless for him. Call it charisma, maybe technique, but it was extraordinary."
After hearing the young boy play, David realized, without regret, that he needed to do something else. "If you have humility, you realize certain people have something you just don’t have." David wanted to find for himself what that boy had found — the natural intersection of talent, skill, interest, and passion.
David met with faculty members who said the only missing link for applying to medical school was the MCAT. He was fortunate that his violin professor, Jeff Cox, made sure he understood there were "many ways to have a rewarding musical life short of being a concert violinist." So, off to medical school David went, violin in hand.
From Music School to Medical School
When David got to medical school, he initially focused on the technical aspects of study, just as he had done with violin. He quickly realized he had found in medicine what that young boy had in the violin. Medicine came naturally to him. It was like a river that was destined to flow in a certain direction. "Lo and behold, the skills-set necessary to be a good violinist were very similar to those required of being a surgeon — the most important of which was the ability to concentrate for long periods of time."
David played in the local orchestra throughout his years in medical school and ultimately became a member of the orchestra’s Board. It became his mission to "preserve this fantastic music and make a financial contribution toward its continuance. I wanted people to love this repertoire." And he would soon have the financial means to help make that happen.
A Surgical Success Story
David is now part of a thriving neurological practice in Central Coast California. He believes his musical training makes him a better listener and more compassionate toward his patients. In turn, his patients see him as a more balanced person because of his music. "Whether I’m discussing an issue with your spine or the difficulty negotiating the fugue in Schumann’s piano quartet, it’s a similar conversation. We’re trying to figure out how to fix a problem."
David is quick to say that one of the great frustrations of being a surgeon is the fact that aging is the enemy of us all. "Surgery can’t fix everything because the machine — our body — keeps getting older. It’s humbling to fix something surgically, but realize that even though you’ve done your job very well, the aging process continues and the patient may have more problems over time."
That said, his face lights up when he talks about his success stories. Take Tanja, for example, who collapsed one day at work. She simply fell down without explanation, and it happened again later that day. Tanja saw multiple specialists — heart, vision, ENT — before finding David. By this point, she had quit her job as an in-home care specialist since she couldn’t rely on her ability to stand without falling. Her legs simply gave out from under her without any notice or apparent reason. She was in excruciating pain and her weight was down to 85 pounds. Her greatest fear was Multiple Sclerosis.
After a battery of tests, David made a different diagnosis. He began to prepare Tanja emotionally for what would be an extremely difficult surgery, specifically, a thoracotomy with an excision of the central thoracic herniated disk. "By the time I met Dr. Yeh," Tanja recalled, "I was sick of doctors. But he was unusually kind. He listened to me. He let me cry. Then he calmly told me that if I didn’t have surgery soon I could be paralyzed. He made it clear I could go elsewhere for surgery, but he was confident in his team."
David always weighs the risks and rewards of his surgical interventions. Clearly, if you can’t walk before surgery and you can after, the risk was well worth it. And that was the case for Tanja. As David says, "In medicine, there are times you absolutely have to believe you’re right. But you know that’s not the case one hundred percent of the time. So, humility is important. You have to get out of the way of your own ego."
Practicing in Limited Time
When I met David, the question front and center in my mind was how he could possibly find the time to practice? I had heard him play (Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, no less) and it was remarkable. He more than held his own in a group of highly-skilled professionals. His strategy for practice is basic, but seems ideal for busy people. It’s all about maximizing the time you have, regardless of how limited that may be.
If he just has a few minutes, he focuses on one short passage — maybe eight bars. "Over time, if you’re disciplined, you can get through an entire piece." Alternatively, he’ll play scales for 10 minutes or work on vibrato exercises. If he’s preparing to play in public, he practices every day, even if that means taking his violin to the office and practicing during breaks.
If he’s feeling particularly motivated, David plays Kreutzer etudes on viola. Yes, viola — an instrument he started playing relatively late and finds a more "supportive" instrument than the violin.
Finding a Balance
David believes that when music flows between a musician and the audience, there is a greater understanding of life. Perspectives are enriched and a sense of history is shared. He knows first-hand that making music is inherently difficult and the challenges are endless. And he certainly knows the same is true in medicine. "What bonds us together as humans is that we suffer the same maladies. Whether it’s Beethoven or the butcher down the street. We are fighting against an aging machine that simply can’t be stopped. Both pursuits — music and medicine — are humbling. Both pursuits are rewarding. Both pursuits add to the quality of life."
Today David is firmly ensconced in his medical career. He’s active in his community and financially sponsors multiple classical music groups in his area, including Festival Mozaic, Orchestra Novo, and the San Luis Obispo Symphony. He performs as violinist and violist on a regular basis, most recently as guest artist with the Appalachian Piano Trio (the wonderful Schumann performance that I was fortunate enough to hear), and annually with a group he formed called the Aloha Piano Quartet. If that weren’t enough, he also owns a local restaurant called Oki Momo Asian Grill.
David does not describe his life as "busy," rather, as "full and complete." He notes there are no real shortcuts if you want to excel — something that is true whether performing a concerto or neurosurgery. Having music so firmly integrated into his life brings meaning and depth to it. And, in his own words, "I have no regrets about my path. It could not have been scripted any better."
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