Docs who rock: A little self-prescribed musical medicine


Some of the capital’s top medical minds gather in a building in an Ottawa industrial complex.

There’s Dr. Dar Dowlatshahi, an acclaimed stroke neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital and researcher with the Department of Medicine.

“I’ve spent half my career treating patients with strokes. So, my speciality is in acute strokes.  I’m the doctor you see in Emerg if you’re unfortunate enough to have a stroke,” says Dowlatshahi.

“The rest of the time I’m doing research, trying to find new treatments.”

On this Sunday afternoon, the doctor is self-prescribing a treatment of music therapy. He and others have come to the Record Runner Rehearsal Studios to enjoy a little R ‘n R; in this case, rock ‘n roll.

“Every month, or two, I get together with the band—a bunch of folks from work. And we just blow off some steam.”

One of the “bunch” is the chief of gastroenterology at the Civic, Dr. Alaa Rostom.

Taking a break from colonoscopy, gall stone and other gastro procedures today, Rostom is excited by another case—the one holding his electric guitar.

“In high school, I used to play in a local band, but gave it up when I went to medical school,” says Rostom.

“All of us have grown up with music and it’s a big part of our lives, so to be able to participate and perform is a lot of fun for us.”

The band has attracted three other members.  

Dr. Rob Beanlands is a leading cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Today, though, he’s a lead singer.

“These guys are amazingly talented,” says Beanlands.  

“I’ve got the easy part. I just learn the words and sing along.”

And when the doctor steps up to the mic, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“This started in the middle of COVID.  It was a very stressful time for everybody in the world, including patients, healthcare professionals, and providers,” says Beanlands.

 “We were all very stressed and this basically created a release.  It provided such joy and enthusiasm outside of work that it inspired us to keep going.”

Ottawa Hospital stroke neurologist Dr. Dar Dowlatshahi keeps the beat, as the Faculty of Medicine’s Dr. Jocelyn Côté works a bass line during rehearsal. (Joel Haslam)Tracy Serafini is Director of Strategy and Communications for the Ottawa Hospital’s Department of Medicine.  She and Dr. Dar are credited with first getting the band together to make a music tribute video for the Department’s departing chair.

“It was an idea to honour and pay tribute to Dr. Phil Wells,” says Serafini.

 “We planned to change the words to ‘Come Together’ and play that for him,” says Dr. Rob Beanlands.

 “We came together to create this video and I remember when it was done, Rob said ‘this has been the best moment since the beginning of the pandemic.  We need to keep it going,’” she recalls.

 “We also performed live at the cardiology Christmas party.  People seemed to enjoy it.  They were on the dance floor, so I think that’s a good sign,” she smiles.

 Serafini says she would have been happy to be the band’s planner and roadie, but the doctors insisted she become part of the group.

 “I was quite happy to pack the cooler and pay the bills. That’s my comfort zone.  I think they took pity on me and said we might as well put a tambourine in her hand and get her involved,” she says.

“You know, these guys are so accomplished.  They’re accomplished leaders, clinicians, and researchers. I’m privileged to be a part of it, for sure,” she says.

“It’s terrifying for me, but I’m getting used to it,” she laughs.

Tracy Serafini of the Faculty of Medicine smiles during practice at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios, along with lead singer and UOHI cardiologist Dr. Rob Beanlands and Ottawa Hospital gastroenterologist and lead-guitarist Alaa Rostom. (Joel Haslam/CTV Ottawa)Rounding out the band, is the bass player and Vice-Dean of Research and Innovation with the Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Jocelyn Côté. 

“It’s definitely a buzz to see people get into it on the dance floor.  They start moving and clapping their hands, so it’s a great experience,” he says.

It’s also been a critical stress reliever during a challenging number of years.

“It’s been beneficial for me as an outlet, but also for my family because when I come back from there, I’m a lot more relaxed and that’s more enjoyable for everyone in the family.  So, it’s been really great.”

The band calls itself “Phenotype”.

“That’s a medical term,” says Rostom. 

“There’s genotype which is genetic make-up.  Phenotype is how your body expresses that genetic background.  So, metaphorically, we are expressing ourselves,” smiles Rostom.

The group practices and performs a variety of cover songs.  During my visit they were working on the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary”.

During a pause in practice, Dr. Rob Beanlands recounts his “audition” for the lead singing job. 

“I had to record a video and send it to Dar. He called me up right afterwards and said, ‘you’re in’. I only found out last week, or a couple of weeks ago, that I was the only one who auditioned,” he laughs.

Chief of Gastroenterology Dr. Alaa Rostom is seen during a procedure at the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus. (Joel Haslam CTV Ottawa)Dowlatshahi, who’s been playing drums as a hobby since high school, is elated the band has endured since its first performance.

“That first show was pre-recorded because of Covid.  It was a lot of fun, and we had a great time.  It went better than expected and we had a lot of great feedback,” he says. 

“Rob does not call me after hours, but he calls me up and says,‘I think we should keep the band going.’  We decided to make more rehearsal times and it just kept going from there.”

 All agree this lovin’ spoonful of musical medicine is just what the doctor ordered.

“We love our jobs, but it is stressful, and you do need to do something completely different. So, we absolutely love doing this, and honestly, when we’re together, we don’t talk about work at all, which is kind of neat,” smiles Dowlatshahi.

“There’s no greater feeling,” says Rostom.

Ottawa Hospital Stroke Neurologist and Researcher Dr. Dar Dowlatshahi responds to a call for an acute stroke in the emergency department at the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus (Joel Haslam CTV Ottawa)“It’s so cool to be locked in with these guys and come together.  It will be fun to continue with my bandmates.”

And Tracy Serafini thinks Phenotype will have a future, playing gigs, by request.

“These guys light up when they’re on stage, so we might as well keep it going.”


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