Ottawa doctors perform in hospital scrubs at benefit concert for Bruyère

Piano-playing physician Carol Wiebe and singing cardiac surgeon Fraser Rubens explore connection between music and medicine
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Two Ottawa doctors with a passion for music took to the stage Thursday night to deliver a performance so impressive that it would normally leave one questioning the physicians' career choices — if only they weren't already so good at their day jobs, too.

Dr. Fraser Rubens, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, and Dr. Carol Wiebe, vice president of medical affairs at Bruyère, entertained their audience as part of the Life Changing Music benefit concert for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts in Lowertown. 

He's a classically trained tenor while she's a pianist. They're also co-founders of Concert Docs, an organization of doctors who use their musical talents to perform good, selfless deeds in our community. 

The two physicians were joined by guest musicians: violinist Adam Nelson and cellist Thaddeus Morden.

To keep things fun, they all donned surgical attire.

“We’ve decided to take a break from our patient who's backstage,” Rubens joked at the start of the concert, explaining that the patient — clearly fictional — was left in good hands, under anesthesia.

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From left, violinist Adam Nelson, Dr. Carol Wiebe on piano, Dr. Fraser Rubens and Thaddeus Morden on cello at the Life Changing Music benefit concert for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, on Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Dr. Fraser Rubens, a classically trained tenor, with Dr. Carol Wiebe on piano during the Life Changing Music benefit concert  for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts on Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Concert Docs presented Life Changing Music, a benefit concert for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts on Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Bruyère Continuing Care, one of the largest health care centres of its kind in Canada, addresses the health care needs of the rapidly aging population by offering complex continuing care, geriatric rehabilitation, stroke rehabilitation, palliative care and affordable housing for seniors. Peggy Taillon, president and CEO of the Bruyère Foundation, and Heidi Sveistrup, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Bruyère Research Institute, were both there that night.

Concert Docs is known for performing concerts for charitable causes around Ottawa, and often for dementia patients at long-term care centre and retirement facilities. Rubens spoke about their volunteer work as being meaningful and rewarding.

“I learned the art of giving back to those who are less fortunate than I, those who can no longer get to the concert hall because of disability and those who are in the latter stages of life due to dementia,” Rubens told the room. 

“Music is a universal language, regardless of the actual origin of the words. It is a distinct pleasure for Carol and I to connect with people who have fallen down the tunnel of senility. They often sit motionless in their wheelchairs throughout concerts but, inevitably, some song breaks through the barrier.

"We’ve performed for people who never, ever speak and yet they hear music — particularly songs that they have remembered and loved for generations — and they may look up or tap their foot or start to sing along"

“We’ve performed for people who never, ever speak and yet they hear music — particularly songs that they have remembered and loved for generations — and they may look up or tap their foot or start to sing along.

“It’s believed that music is the last mechanism of communication to leave us. It is our last good-bye to them. That’s a great honour for us. And — hands down — the song that connects most to these most vulnerable people in our society is Londonderry Air,” he said before singing the tune, which is also known as Danny Boy.

Mixed in with the performances were brief lecture interludes by Rubens that explored the relationship between music and medicine, and how music benefits health. Rubens used charts, diagrams, brain images and other visual aids as he examined the effects that music has on the brain. The surgeon said he generally doesn't sing in the operating room because he doesn't like the acoustics but he's been known to acquiesce to crooning requests made by patients. 

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Dr. Fraser Rubens, a classically trained tenor, during the Life Changing Music benefit concert  for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, held Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Rubens also opened up about how music has made him a better doctor.

“One of the biggest and most interesting relationships between music and medicine that I’ve only recently dawned on is the shared principal and foundation of empathy,” he said.

“When I was in training as a medical student, the word was bandied about but no one spent a moment to explain what it was, so that someone with a scientific mindset could truly understand. Well, here it is: empathy involves the ability to understand and appreciate, in a sensitive manner, another’s predicament or feeling, and it also involves communicating back that understanding to that patient in a supportive manner.

“If you give the message back incorrectly it means that you don’t truly understand the emotional situation of the patient, and the communication bond — which is the basis of trust of the doctor-patient relationship — may be irrevocably lost.”

The three partners in any musical presentation — the composer, the musician and the audience — have an emotional sensitivity toward each other, he added. 

“It seems to me that understanding this dynamic of music and, indeed, the performing arts (the same holds true for dance and drama), underscores how important they are for training our doctors of tomorrow.

“It’s possible that whatever skill I have as a compassionate physician has been deeply influenced by my exposure to music.”

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Peggy Taillon, president and CEO of the Bruyère Foundation, with the star performers Dr. Fraser Rubens and Dr. Carol Wiebe at the pre-concert reception for their Life Changing Music benefit concert, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts on Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Attendees included some of Rubens’ former patients, including John Rutherford, 85, who's married to former Ottawa mayor Jacquelin Holzman. He came out to support the doctor for giving him another extension on life.

Rutherford had his second double bypass surgery at the Heart Institute in 2017. It was done by Rubens. His first one, in 1994, was performed by the late Dr. Wilbert Keon.

Lt-Col. (retired) Fran Chilton-Mackay was also out to support Rubens, who has sung the finale for the past two years at the annual Army Ball that she organizes. She was joined by Ottawa legend Barbara Clark, founding director of the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir. As well, Bruyère patron Shirley Greenberg was out that night with nearly a dozen of her friends. 

Worthy of a special mention is Rubens' wife, Dr. Carole Dennie, who has an artistic talent of her own: ballroom dancing. The radiologist blew everyone away during her participation in the 2018 Dancing with the Docs fundraiser for The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

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From left, Barbara Clark with Lt-Col (retired) Fran Chilton-Mackay at the Life Changing Music benefit concert, held at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts on Thursday, September 26, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a scientific advisor in innovation for Bruyère, with Heidi Sveistrup, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Bruyère Research Institute, Dr. Carol Wiebe and Peggy Taillon, president and CEO of the Bruyère Foundation, at the Life Changing Music benefit concert. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Dr. Fraser Rubens at the pre-concert reception for the Life Changing Music benefit with Jacquelin Holzman and former patient John Rutherford. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Suzanne Gumpert with Bruyère vice president Sharon Rowan at the Life Changing Music benefit concert, held at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Bruyère Foundation patron Barbara Hein with Bruyère vice-president Kim Curran and her partner, Jeff Nidd, at the Life Changing Music benefit concert, held at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Eleanor Thomson, Betty Gittens, Suzanne Gumpert, Peggy Taillon, Shirley Greenberg and Jerry Grey at the Life Changing Music benefit concert for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Dr. Carole Dennie with Dr. Kumanan Wilson at the Life Changing Music benefit concert for the Bruyère Foundation, held at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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Dr. Suzanne Filion, vice president at Hawkesbury and District General Hospital, with her husband, André Varin, at the Life Changing Music benefit concert, held at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

- caroline@obj.ca