When thinking about the life of a pre-health student, what comes to mind? Is it a performer? Or perhaps an image of a young college student who spends their days in rigorous science courses and uses their nights and weekends to study, conduct research, and volunteer or work in various healthcare facilities to gain experience; maybe they are also building up their resume with all the extracurricular activities they can fit in their schedule, seeking out leadership positions, and of course, enjoying the social life their campus has to offer. In many cases, this is an accurate image.
However, for some, experiences as a pre-health student look drastically different. Their days are spent refining their technique in class and rehearsals, while their nights are spent on stage performing for audiences around the world. But for performers who have an interest in pursuing a healthcare career while still deeply engaged in the performing arts, these non-traditional pre-health students can find creative ways to make it happen.
First-year emergency medicine resident Carrie Walsh, third-year medical student Likolani Brown, and speech-language pathologist and voice specialist Scott Sussman did just that.
Carrie Walsh, M.D. – First-Year Emergency Medicine Resident, Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency
At first, a career as a professional ballet dancer seems extraordinarily different from a career as a physician, but Dr. Walsh was quick to point out that there are more commonalities than one may expect. “They’re both careers where you have to give a lot to your job. It’s not a 9 to 5 where you go home and forget about it. In ballet, you’re always doing Pilates or looking up choreography, and thinking and dreaming about your dances. Medicine is the same way. I chose two careers that are all-encompassing.”
Raised in Jersey, a small island in the UK, Walsh thought she wanted to be a doctor when she was growing up. But when she found ballet at the late age of 14, her focus changed. “I was aware that ballet was something I had to do when I was young, and I figured I could always go back to school,” she said. She moved to London when she was 16 years old after auditioning and being accepted into the Royal Ballet School. After completing her training, she danced with several major ballet companies in Europe, including the Royal Danish Ballet and the Norwegian National Ballet. During rehabilitation for an injury she sustained dancing with a company in Spain, she picked up some old biology textbooks and her interest was piqued, although she continued to dance. Right before her 28th birthday, she started thinking about going back to school as she approached retirement.
While on vacation in New York, she took classes at Steps on Broadway and noticed a neuroscience textbook next to another dancer’s bag in the studio. After class, she struck up a conversation with the dancer to ask her about her experience and that’s when she learned about Columbia University’s School of General Studies for non-traditional students. She toured the campus while she was in town and then flew back to her home in Norway and started looking more into the admission process. “Being British, I hadn’t taken the SAT, so I scheduled a date for the test in Oslo. But I didn’t realize it was a five-hour test, and I had two performances of Swan Lake that day and barely made it back to the theater in time for the matinee after the exam,” she recalled.
When she received her acceptance to Columbia, the director at the Norwegian National Ballet was supportive and encouraged her to pursue the opportunity. She moved to New York and majored in neuroscience while completing the pre-medical prerequisites, and then she went straight into medical school at Thomas Jefferson University. She said she initially considered physical therapy as a possible career, given her background and experience with injuries, but felt medicine was a better fit. “I wanted to go farther outside my comfort zone. I also wanted the challenge to be able to see and do things in other areas of medicine. And on some level, I wasn’t sure how I would feel still being in the ballet world on the sidelines as a PT. I love ballet too much, and I didn’t think I would want to watch people do it all day every day as part of my job. I still have a fascination with the human body and get to use that in my work, but this way I’m farther removed from the ballet world,” she said.
Now, Walsh is a first-year emergency medicine resident at Harvard and started her internship year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The transition has been a challenge, and she’s had to adjust. “It’s been hard because most of what grounds me and helps me find balance isn’t possible right now. When I was an undergrad I could take classes in New York almost daily and see my friends from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. For the hour and a half I was in class each day, I wasn’t an undergrad student — it was just about the dance, and I was back with my ballet people,” she said. In medical school, it was a bit more difficult, but she still was able to take a class once or twice a week. “It was good for my soul to be in a room with other people who loved ballet and who weren’t medical students. One of the things I love about Boston is that there are tons of open classes and companies, but that’s not accessible right now with COVID,” she explained.
But, she’s adapted. She has a small ballet barre in her apartment, along with a square of grey marley floor that allows her to safely do pointe work and take ballet classes via Zoom when she has time between shifts at the hospital. In a post-COVID world, she looks forward to going back to class, reconnecting with her ballet friends in person, and going to see live performances while continuing her residency in emergency medicine.
Likolani Brown – Third-Year Medical Student, New York University
Like Dr. Walsh, Likolani Brown had a successful career as a professional ballerina before enrolling in medical school after retiring. While still in high school, Brown moved to New York City from her home in Maryland to attend the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet. She applied to college as a high school senior, gaining admission into Harvard at the same time she was offered an apprenticeship in the New York City Ballet. She decided to defer Harvard and test the professional ballet waters for a year to see how it would go. When she was offered a corps de ballet position, she had another choice to make. “I really wanted to dance, and this was my opportunity to do it,” she said. “So, I had to officially turn down Harvard and take another year off [from college].”
Brown said she had always liked the sciences, and eventually she started taking Monday night courses at Fordham University, which is close to New York City Ballet. At the time, she wasn’t planning to go into medicine and thought she might end up in research. “I was injured quite a bit dancing, so I built these strong relationships with my physicians and understood the very special patient-physician bond you can have and how therapeutic that can be. But at that time, I thought that it wasn’t something for me. I was on the other side of that. I wasn’t the one providing the care. I was receiving it.”
Eventually, she transferred to Columbia University to take part-time classes in their School of General Studies while continuing to dance with the company. When she took her first biology class, she loved it. She continued to take biology courses and started to volunteer in the hospital and do research in a lab. “I wanted to see what would speak to me. It turns out that I didn’t like working in the lab, but I loved the hospital,” she said. “There’s something so similar to the medical profession and performing to me. In ballet, I felt like I was benefiting the world in some way by improving people’s lives through art. In medicine, it’s obviously different, but I still get to improve people’s lives and make an impact in the world.”
Brown’s schedule as a full-time ballet dancer and a part-time student was not easy. She took early morning academic classes during the week before going to the studio for full days of ballet classes, rehearsals, and performances. Because theaters are “dark” on Mondays and that gave her a day off from her job as a ballerina, she filled her Mondays with her typical pre-med requirements, like research and volunteering, as well as more coursework. She had to take semesters off from college when the company would tour, and it ultimately took her approximately 12 years to finish her college degree.
After 15 years with the ballet company, Brown retired from the New York City Ballet and started medical school at New York University, where she is now in her third year. She sees the influence her ballet training has had on her life in her current role as a medical student. “I think as a dancer you just have this skill set to really focus and work hard and not get distracted by everything else going on. That work ethic is a strength that has helped carry me through,” she said.
Scott Sussman, M.S., CCC-SLP – Speech-Language Pathologist and Voice Specialist, Sean Parker Institute for the Voice at Weill Cornell Medicine
For Scott Sussman, it was his own vocal injury that prompted an idea that a career in speech-language pathology, and more specifically as a voice specialist, maybe a logical next step. He started his stage career when he moved to New York after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in theater. After working steadily for several years, he started developing problems with his voice, ultimately losing his singing voice entirely. “Here I was getting to the point in my career where I was up for Broadway shows. I remember walking into an audition and having a casting director say to me, ‘Wow, what happened to you?’ So I stopped auditioning,” Sussman said, mentioning that he changed his focus to stand-up comedy to give his singing voice a break.
But ultimately, he still found himself getting hoarse and often had to be on vocal rest when he wasn’t on stage. “It just got to the point where I couldn’t sustain that cycle. What kind of life is that, especially as a performer?” After multiple medications, surgeries, and doctor visits, he finally had a solution: voice therapy. Sussman was skeptical at first, but he saw improvement within weeks.
Then the ultimate test came: he was called in to audition for an emergency replacement role for Tony in West Side Story in the European tour. They offered him the role and he immediately flew to Zurich. It was supposed to be a two-month contract, but he booked the 2008 London revival production and then continued to tour for three years in 26 cities around the world. During that time, he continued his voice therapy exercises and Skyped with his voice therapist. Eventually, other performers took note and started asking him for suggestions when they would lose their voices. When the tour came to a close, he felt like he was aging out of the role and had to make a decision about the next phase of his career.
He moved back to New York after the tour and started to explore the field of speech-language pathology as a possible career shift. He enrolled at City University of New York to take prerequisites while continuing to be a performer, ultimately earning his speech-language pathology master’s degree from MGH Institute of Health Professions. As a speech-language pathologist, Sussman has been able to specialize in voice and has worked in Salt Lake City and Orlando before moving back to New York City to work at Weill Cornell Medicine. “It’s some of the highest stakes in voice therapy that I’ve ever encountered,” he said. It’s not unusual for him to work with a performer who is preparing to take the stage at Carnegie Hall or the Tony Awards, and he loves what he does.
Sussman credits his stage work not only for leading him to his current career but also for informing what he does on a daily basis. “My agent was furious with me when I went back to school. He said, ‘you know, you just came off this tour. Why would you go to school now?’ But I think my extensive career as a performer really informs everything I do in the clinic. I know what it was like to do eight shows a week because I’ve been through it. I know what it’s like to lose your voice on stage halfway through a show. I know what it’s like to go on stage and not know if you’re going to be able to get through it, or sitting backstage with a steam inhaler, praying that it helps.” Sussman said that those experiences are invaluable, and he’s grateful he had those opportunities.
Advice for Fellow Performers
For Walsh, Brown, and Sussman, who have all found themselves going from performing for theaters full of people to treating patients at the bedside, the discipline, dedication, and love of a mental and physical challenge has kept them passionate about the work they do. They would encourage other performers to consider a career in healthcare as well. “People don’t often talk about what happens after retirement from performing. People don’t want to think about the end of their performance careers,” Walsh said. “We like to think that we’re invincible and can dance forever. And I never knew that this could be a real option until I saw that neuroscience textbook by another dancer’s bag at the studio. And if she could do it, I could do it, too. And if I can do it, so can you.”
As these three clinicians have demonstrated, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Life as a performer and a life as a clinician are not mutually exclusive.
They also say not to be deterred by the extra time it may take because that performance experience enhances their clinical work. “I was doing eight shows a week for 10 years, and that’s not something that can be taught,” Sussman said. “I would never dissuade someone from pursuing a performance career. My performance degree served me well. I wouldn’t be who I am now without it.” But, he also would encourage a performer to make sure the healthcare path is right for them because it is a lot of work. “Do your homework and make sure you enjoy the work,” he said. Sussman recommends taking some prerequisite coursework and exploring the field through observation and by talking to clinicians about their work as one way to start that process.
“I feel like putting in the work and eventually getting to do something that you love will be worth it in the end. You already have had a life full of passion as a performer,” Brown said. “You don’t want to settle for something else that you don’t really want to do, just because it may take less time to get there.”
Walsh agreed. “When I started this path, people said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to go into medicine? Do you really want to be 35 when you graduate?’ And I just thought, well, I can be 35 with an MD after my name, or I can just be 35. I may as well be 35 with an MD and doing something I love.”