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VOL. 41 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 09, 2017

Vanderbilt cardiologist has a song in her heart

Transplant specialist splits time between careers in medicine, music

BY Tim Ghianni

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Perhaps it was Josephine, 3, who drew me in to the East Nashville house where the singing cardiologist markets her work. No, she doesn’t market cardiology here – too complicated – but it’s a dandy place to record and to peddle CDs.

“I sick. I got code,” says Josie, as she sits in a high chair in the dining area of the tidy house with the white-picket fence, Dr. Suzie Brown’s dream home, toward the bottom of an East Nashville hillside. Just over the next rise is Shelby Bottoms.

Speaking of Shelby, on the day of my gentle visit to the singer-doctor, Josephine is going by the name “Shelby,” the singer in Sally & George, a Nashville band she likes. Probably should note here that in Josie’s lively pre-school vocabulary “Sally” translates into “Shelby.”

“She changes her name when she has a new favorite,” Suzie says. For instance, the little girl with the robust curls on her head has, in the past, gone by “Shirley Temple,” which completely suits her appearance.

The singing doctor allows that most of her medical colleagues don’t know the “dirty little secret” that she has the voice of an angel and can play a good guitar. Sometimes she’ll even handle the bass when she and her husband, Scot Sax, tear up a tavern with their occasional high-energy rockabilly/country/Americana act.

“We really have fun when we do ‘The Scot and Suzie Show,’” says the very good doctor, whose own solo work is more in the tradition of a guitar-bridging-the-thighs singer-songwriter and whose music tip-toes nicely along the fading line separating pure folk and country lament.

“Which patch shall I put on it?” says Scot, asking for forgiveness (none needed) for interrupting the conversation I’m having with his wife.

He shows Suzie a maroon jumpsuit: “I wear jumpsuits on stage,” he explains to me in an aside.

He asks his love to choose which of the two workingman’s coverall ID patches should be used to decorate his costume’s right breast. They settle on the Triumph mechanic’s patch after Suzie tells Scot it goes much better with maroon.

The jumpsuit is for another of his musical identities. When he’s not performing with his wife or babysitting, he is a member of Soul Revue, a full-scale, old-school show band.

“Hey, great shirt,” he says of my Golden Anniversary Glimmer Twins T-shirt. “I love the Stones,” he adds, recounting how – back when he was 12 or so – he and some classmates ditched school to catch The Stones on their Voodoo Lounge Tour stop in Philly.

On this day, before heading out into the city to drop off the jumpsuit at the dry cleaners for a little Triumph stitchery … and maybe meet his wife later for lunch … Scot is wearing heart-shaped metal-rimmed glasses with a bit of a pink tint.

I don’t ask him if they are “real” glasses or simply fun specs giving him that sort of Elton John “Crocodile Rock” appearance.

Suzie, who during this week is being the musician half of her soul – she splits her month, devoting two weeks to her music and two weeks to working as an advanced heart failure/heart transplant doc at Vanderbilt University Medical Center – bends down to pick up 17-month-old Chloe... “Chloe, Chloe, David Bowie,” Suzie says in sort of a musical rhyme of love.

Suzie sets the baby down – her nanny and mother-in-law both are on hand to do a bit of baby-sitting – and leads the way across the rich hardwood floors of her vintage East Nashville home.

A screen to scare off the bugs serves as a loose curtain through which we pass to spend some time on the back deck during this relatively – by late-May Nashville standards – mild day.

She quickly offers me a glass of water. “You must be thirsty from driving over here,” she asks.

“We moved down here in January of 2014,” says Suzie, sipping from her own water glass. Her dark brown eyes glisten as she tosses off another of her frequent smiles of content.

Raised in Boston, it was while she was working in Philly at Einstein Medical Center that she met her husband. “He’s the most creative person I’ve ever met,” Suzie adds, admitting she has a difficult time keeping up with Scot when the two are co-writing a song.

Publicity materials sent to me compare her voice to those of Patsy Cline and Patty Griffin. Suzie herself is unsure when asked to compare her vocals with those of other female artists. She admits a passion for Gillian Welch and early Bonnie Raitt: “My timbre isn’t like theirs, but they are influences.”

After we get out on the deck, she slaps any pollen or dust from the picnic chair cushions and motions for me to sit down.

She follows suit and our conversation over the next hours is only interrupted a couple of times by a fellow who takes care of their yard. Oh, there is the little matter of Chloe hanging onto the front of her mom’s shirt and even standing (with Mom’s tense support) atop the picnic table. But I welcome “Chloe … David Bowie” to participate.

What better way to learn about a woman who puts family first – ahead of her dual careers as a heart doc and a richly voiced singer – than to have the kids around?

“I love my girls,” Suzie says. “They are the best thing I ever did.” She volunteers that this may be the extent of offspring.

After all, though she hardly looks it, she’s 42. And even her airy dream house might not allow room for more kids. Too many books and recordings, including a healthy dose of Beatles stuff, as Scot is a Fab Four freak and Suzie a loving enabler.

Brown graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in biophysical chemistry in 1996, then went to work in a research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1996-98. She then attended at Harvard Medical School, where she graduated in 2002.

She interned back in her hometown of Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and continued her training with a cardiology fellowship at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she also got a master of science degree.

Dr. Suzie Brown is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School. She completed her cardiology fellowship at  the University of Pennsylvania.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

After settling in, she continues to describe her transition from a serious physician in Philly to the life of a Nashville singer-songwriter who allows her personality to split in two, with one Suzie nurturing and tending to sick-or-dying heart patients and the other Suzie ready to plop a guitar in her lap to write songs from her heart.

“I keep those personalities separate,” she points out, allowing that on this afternoon, even though she is “off” she must attend a meeting at VUMC.

“I love my job,” she says, frequently and heart-felt, during our laid-back time together.

“I had a great job at Einstein,” Suzie recalls. (How would you like to tell folks “I worked for Einstein for a while?”)

She loved her work at that hospital. Around the time she was 34, she picked up a guitar and began writing songs.

She toured a lot in the Northeast before moving to Nashville, she explains.

Her venues generally were folk joints like Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Philly’s late and lamented Tin Angel.

“I really didn’t do any public singing until I was in the Dartmouth Rockapellas,” when she was an undergrad, says the doctor.

And, for a different style of singing completely, she joined the Boston cast of the musical “Hair.”

I ask her if she participated in the rock opera’s most controversial (but actually sweetest) scene: The full-frontal nude appearance demonstrating, among other things, that not all “Hair” was on the cast’s heads.

“You didn’t have to if you didn’t want to,” she recalls, of removing her clothes and standing on a spotlighted stage. “But it was fun. It was freeing.”

After those adventures, she went on to medical school and learned the intricacies of the human heart that prepared her for her extra-specialized career dealing with people suffering from potentially mortal heart woes and who often rely on machinery – “Like Dick Cheney had,” she offers – to stay alive while awaiting a transplant.

Her work, by the way, does not have her in the operating room. Rather she tends to the patients themselves, learning to love them, which sometimes washes her in melancholia.

“You get really close to them. And their families, too,” she adds, her smile disappearing when I tell her it must be tough to befriend these people and sometimes to see them die. I know that my own journalist’s encounters with dead people has left deep scars in my own soul, and for the most part, I never met them until they were no longer alive.

“It’s very emotional,” she admits, looking away, perhaps hiding tears. I would guess a lot of doctors probably hide their emotions even as a patient’s death burns in their hearts.

Her songs, though, are explorations of life: heart-lifting, heart-breaking and broken-hearted songs.

Promotional photos from Brown’s other career as a musician/songwriter. More can be found about that side of her life at www.suziebrownsongs.com.

-- Top Photograph Courtesy Of Laura Keen. Middle And Lower Photographs Courtesy Of Lisa Schaffer

Her boss at Vanderbilt, Dr. JoAnn Lindenfeld, director of the heart failure and heart transplant program, knows about Suzie’s “other life” with her guitar and artist’s sensibilities.

“She’s a terrific person, extremely knowledgeable and compassionate,” says Lindenfeld, who has a medical staff of 12.

She says Suzie’s split schedule “works well for everyone. She certainly does her job very well while she’s here.”

“I have all her CDs. I think her music gives her a lovely perspective about life in general and makes her a more effective communicator as a physician,” Suzie’s boss adds.

The sweet-voiced singer didn’t come to Nashville by accident.

As noted earlier, she had found success in Philly “and I loved it,” says Einstein’s former doc.

It was a good existence…. that in an odd way fueled her to move to Nashville to join the singer-songwriter scene.

Sure, Philly has plenty of cheese-steaks and is filled with history – mementoes of The Founding Fathers, The Liberty Bell and Rocky Balboa.

The so-called “City of Brotherly Love” also has The Phillies and The Eagles (the football team, not Don Henley’s oldies “Hotel California” rock band).

The city also is famous for street-corner Doo Wop and its extension into Philly soul music.

But there was one element missing, something or someone who could help her move forward in her physical yearning and psychological need to make music.

“There weren’t so many songwriting partners up there,” she explains.

The singing doctor began to visit Nashville. We do have a lot of songwriters: Have you spoken with your waiter or roofer lately?

“I came here on a bunch of writing trips,” Suzie says. She even recorded an album, “Almost There,” at the Sound Emporium, the old recording studio on Belmont Boulevard that was begun long ago by the late music-and-mirth genius and good guy Cowboy Jack Clement.

“I just felt so good here I freaked out,” she remembers. “I knew we had to be here.

“I loved the vibe, the creative, liberal, musical, nice, family friendly vibe of Nashville,” Suzie explains. “I knew I could grow as a singer-songwriter down here. I think I’ve also grown to be a better instrumentalist.”

And there were biological forces at work as well. Although she looks a decade younger than her 42 years as she sits on the deck, early afternoon sun brightening her long, lush, dark-brown hair; she and Scot knew there was another thing they wanted, needed really, to make their lives and love story complete.

Dr. Suzie Brown with nurse practitioner Dawn Eck at the cardiology clinic at Vanderbilt.

-- Photograph Courtesy Daniel Dubois

“We knew we wanted to start a family, and I wanted to be someplace where I could be creative from 9-5 and also take care of my family.’’

What she needed was to live in a music “factory town,” where writing, performing and recording is done 24 hours a day and can accommodate a mom who is most eager to spend her days and nights with her husband and children.

Even when performing onstage, she likes 6 p.m. start times, unusual in Nashville’s 9 p.m. show “rule.”

“I’m always telling people that they would get bigger crowds if they started earlier,” she notes. “Who wants to be out at 11 o’clock listening to music?”

By the way, folks who might want to see her perform will have the opportunity July 8 at the Five Spot. But don’t arrive after 6.

“I can get home, eat something with my children and we all put our jammies on,” she says of her rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Another part of her up-by-5:30 a.m., kids-asleep-by-9 p.m. cycle is it allows Suzie and Scot to share private time, talking and reading in the quiet of their bedroom.

Her doctor’s hours – 6:45 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., on average – rob her of some family time, but it’s a sacrifice that fills half of her soul. “I’ve worked 12 days in a row before. I love the job. Love who I work with.”

But those hours are hardly conducive to her life’s priority, which is why half the month is spent as a mommy, a daydream believer and daytime songwriter.

When she and Scot moved to Nashville, she truly did want the white-picket fence existence, live in a friendly neighborhood and raise a family.

She protects that part of her persona when tending to the more serious tasks of a doc.

As noted earlier, I’m outing this cardiologist a bit by gently removing her veil to show that she is a professional musician when not saving lives and tending to the needs of heart patients.

As noted earlier, her boss is supportive of Suzie’s dual life.

But as for her other colleagues? “Most of them don’t know,” Suzie replies when asked if her VUMC peers are aware of what she’s doing during the two weeks a month she’s “off.”

“It’s begun to slip out there,” she adds. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it on purpose.

She desires to be treated like a serious and dedicated cardiologist. She tries to keep her artsy, musical side separate from the medical side.

“I certainly wouldn’t tell the patients,” she says. When a fella’s fighting for his life, he really doesn’t want his doctor to strap on a Martin and begin playing music.

Touring – at least on a small scale – is still on her agenda since she wants to sell her new record, “Sometimes Your Dreams Find You” and four others she hauls along with her in the trunk, a merchandizing style she shares with many of her musical East Nashville neighbors. (Proof? Next time you encounter someone from that side of the Cumberland River, just ask her or him to open the car trunk.)

Of course, the kids and Scot take the road with her on her short-burst 2-3-week tours. “Every 30 miles we’d have to make a pee-pee stop for the girls…” she muses.

Chloe is squeezing on her stuffed Daniel Tiger. When you push his belly, the animal sings his own version of the old “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” ditty.

Chloe doesn’t watch that PBS show, but it is Josie’s favorite.

“That’s the only show we let her watch,” says mom. “We really like to limit the girls’ screen-time.” Chloe’s TV days are soon in the future.

The cheerful 17-month-old girl hauls Daniel Tiger from the picnic table and into her mom’s lap. Time for a little chuckle and snuggle action.

“This is a dream,” says the doctor, who will continue to write and to sing and record long into the future. … as long as it doesn’t interfere with days like today, when she and the kids spend soft time drawing colored-chalk “portraits” on the front sidewalk.

Suzie doesn’t have stars in her eyes. As noted, she really loves the medical part of her life, too. And though quite lovely, she’s past the age and need to take on the Taylor Swifts and Carrie Underwoods of the world.

“I’m not really looking for ‘The Next Thing’” of music stardom, she says.

Doesn’t need it. Doesn’t want it. She wants to have plenty of time like this, daughters and husband close at hand.

“This is a dream here,” she adds. “I used to have a lot of angst. I never thought I was capable of being this content.”