It all started with a song.
Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, was treating a patient with stage 4 prostate cancer. The patient, a well-known San Diego piano teacher, shared that he’d always found comfort in the healing power of music. Dr. Eisenberg, himself a guitarist and songwriter, made an unusual suggestion: What if the two collaborated on a song? The patient immediately agreed.
The song they wrote, ‘Teaching Me,’ conveyed the patient’s love of music and teaching, but also delivered another powerful message. “He showed me, as his physician, what it meant to go on the journey of dying with such grace and dignity,” says Dr. Eisenberg, an oncologist, hematologist and internal medicine specialist in San Diego.
Since then, Dr. Eisenberg has co-written many more songs, attracting national media attention for his doctor-patient songwriting project, the Lyrical Life Foundation, in which he writes songs with patients going through chemotherapy. He’s the co-founder of cCare, a private oncology practice with locations in San Diego and Fresno, California, and recently launched The Dr. Steven Show, an online health news channel. In this edited Q&A, Dr. Eisenberg discusses the healing arts and why empathy is essential to the practice of medicine.
How do you approach the songwriting process?
Once I’ve gotten to know my patients, I call them in the evening or over the weekend and we spend half an hour talking about completely non-medical topics: what they love about life, what their childhood was like, how they met their spouse, and what legacy they want to leave. We start writing the song, and over the next week or two, the tune comes to me and the rest of the song writes itself. I record an MP3 of the song and lyrics for the patient to keep.
What we’re writing is an anthem to help that person battle through cancer and chemo. It reflects what moves, touches and inspires that individual. Not all my patients want to do songs, but the ones who do really enjoy it.
As a physician, how does this project help your practice?
For me, writing songs with patients is a way of protecting myself against burnout. People always ask, “Isn’t oncology a depressing specialty?” It is difficult, especially on days when you get more bad news than good. You can feel really down and take that home with you. But oncology is also very inspirational because you spend time with people who are discovering what’s important to them in life. That’s what the songs are all about. Writing music with patients refuels my compassion and empathy.
There’s also a larger message here, which is that co-creating with a patient doesn’t have to mean playing a guitar or writing a song. It can be any doctor sitting with any patient—when you Google something together or act as an advocate for patient engagement, you’re forging that same doctor-patient relationship.
What role does empathy play in osteopathic medicine?
The reason I chose osteopathic medicine is that we’re trained from day one to treat the patient as a whole human being. It’s not, “There’s a lung cancer patient in room 1.” It’s, “Here’s Mr. Jones, a husband and father of three who’s a retired engineer and helped build the first supercomputer.” Each patient is a beautiful human being, not their cancer. I’ve made it my life’s mission to bring empathy to oncology, and osteopathic medicine is the perfect avenue for that.