She writes the songs OMM specialist heals patients by day, herself with her music by night “It’s been a little surreal. I didn’t expect that my music would go as far as it has,” says Karen Nielsen, DO, of New York City. Feb. 2, 2012Thursday Kathleen Louden Contact klouden Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Topics osteopathic medical educationwork-life balance Some physicians have unusual hobbies. Karen Nielsen, DO, a Manhattan-based osteopathic manipulative medicine specialist, has a side gig singing in her own alternative music band. By day, Dr. Nielsen has a full practice, treating patients with musculoskeletal pain and other health problems and providing nutritional counseling and lifestyle modification management. One of her patients, Linda DeCarlo, a holistic life and business coach in New York City, calls Dr. Nielsen “a wonderful doctor who knows where my pain is just by looking at me.” Some of Dr. Nielsen’s patients call her “rock doc.” That is because, in her spare time, she works on her music, which she describes as alternative electric pop. The music, she says, “is taking off” with only Internet marketing and word of mouth. A singer and songwriter, she self-produced her first CD last year and just released a music video for her new song, “Ice.” Her CD, Animals in the Street, for which she wrote all the songs, went on sale last spring and is available on iTunes. “All of a sudden,” she says, “people I didn’t know were buying it in places all over, like Italy, Brazil and Missouri.” Fans of her Facebook page now number above 500, and a concert she performed last spring at a New York City nightclub drew a substantial crowd, according to Dr. Nielsen. The singing physician, who has had vocal training since the sixth grade, says, “It’s been a little surreal. I didn’t expect that my music would go as far as it has.” Fans have called her “an innovator … in a class all of her own” and have praised her lyrics as beautiful. Dara Blaker of the online radio show “Dara on Radio” describes Dr. Nielsen’s music as “dark and intense … haunting and hypnotic.” Dr. Nielsen says she wrote many of the lyrics while attending the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing. Medical school as inspiration Medical school was an unusual place for her to end up, Dr. Nielsen writes in her press kit. “With high school dropout and B-movie actress on my résumé, I didn’t quite fit the mold of medical school applicant,” she writes. After taking a high school completion course, she had earned an undergraduate degree in fine arts and acted in a few cable TV movies. Then her father became seriously ill, and she wanted to go to medical school, partly to make him proud, she explains in her press biography. Unfortunately, her father died before she was accepted into med school. Dr. Nielsen says she chose osteopathic medicine because she believes in a bio-psycho-social model of medicine and she appreciated the holistic approach of osteopathic medicine. At Michigan State, a supportive administration allowed her as a second-year osteopathic medical student in 2001 to teach a course on empathy in medicine to other students and faculty. Yet, Dr. Nielsen, who was also singing in a rock band at the time, says she often felt “like a fish swimming upstream.” “I come from New York City, and I’m a very creative person,” she says. “Medical school tended to attract more conservative academic types, and in general people in Michigan were more conservative than I was. Initially, I felt out of place.” The stress of medical school affected her deeply. In her press kit, she writes about how difficult her third-year clinical rotations were: “All the loneliness, death, sadness … shocked me and crushed me.” Hospital work during that time, she writes, reminded her of her father’s death. To sort through her feelings, she wrote songs. The words to her song “Beautiful Insanity” came to her after rotation on a psychiatric unit. When asked if writing music is a healthy outlet, Dr. Nielsen replies, “Absolutely. People often … don’t express feelings of stress, sadness and anxiety. I get to speak about it and get it out of my system. Music is safe—where I can say whatever I want.” The songwriter hopes her music can be healing to others as well. In her song “Pink Elephant,” she sings about the hurtful things that can happen in families that people do not want to talk about—the proverbial elephant in the room. A fan from the Netherlands reportedly wrote to her about how much the song helped an alcoholic friend. Future aspirations for her music, she says, are “to reach more people and … let them know they are not alone.” Medicine-music connection Although medicine and music are very different in many ways, Dr. Nielsen says there is some crossover. “They both have expressive energy. I do such hands-on work in my OMM practice.” She pauses and then adds, “I think being the doctor I am helps me be a better singer-songwriter, and being a singer-songwriter helps me be a better doctor. They keep me in touch with humanity.” Dr. Nielsen says her acting experience also helps her to be a better physician, because she was trained to be present in the moment. She says, “When I’m with patients, I’m focused on them and not distracted.” Initially interested in specializing in psychiatry, Dr. Nielsen says she chose OMM when her mentors in medical school told her she has a gift for it. After completing her graduate training at the Kennedy Health System in Stratford, N.J., she started her practice in New York City in 2009. Now she works to help restore patients to optimal health, and teaches osteopathic medical students who rotate to her practice. As a solo physician, Dr. Nielsen does her own bookkeeping and much of the insurance paperwork. She says because OMT is physically demanding, she limits the number of patients she sees. Patient Linda DeCarlo says she appreciates that Dr. Nielsen, whom she calls Karen, offers a partnership with her patients. “I have stayed with her for three years,” she says. “She is somebody I feel 100% supported by.” Dr. Nielsen tells some of her patients that she sings. DeCarlo saw her in concert last year and says she admires her stage presence and energy. “She’s very hardworking and disciplined. I don’t know how she does it all. I think she’s an amazing woman,” DeCarlo says. Although having a physician who also is in the performing arts is “very cool,” she says, “I don’t want her to become too famous. I don’t want to lose her as a doctor.” Yet Dr. Nielsen, who is working on a second CD, apparently has no plans to give up medicine for music. “I cannot imagine one without the other,” she says. Previous articleSimple tips for keeping medical data secure Next articleIs the world ready for tattooed, pierced physicians?