Vanderbilt's Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks has two callings — being a musician and a life-saving cardiologist
Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks of east Nashville tours clubs around the country — and treats critically ill patients with failing hearts when she's off the road.
Her concert T-shirts say “Saving Lives and Playing Dives.
Touring folk singer Suzie Brown spends her days as the Vanderbilt transplant cardiologist Dr. Suzie Sacks, and she’s heard ‘em all about her dual roles.
Her music will break your heart — and then she’ll fix it.
Knock 'em dead, and then bring 'em back to life.
Brown even comes up with her own lines: She gives talks titled “My life as a guitardiologist.”
While she, her friends and her fans have fun with it, Brown’s pursuits are deadly serious.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks exams Charles Roth, a heart transplant patient, during her morning rounds at the Nashville hospital on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )
The Harvard Medical School grad treats the sickest of the sick, making calls about which heart-failure patients get transplants. Patients and colleagues say she does so with incredible empathy and kindness.
Brown, 45, a married mother of two young girls, says writing and performing songs gives her the creative outlet she needs to release the pressures of her work.
“This life-and-death stuff, it’s really intense. I get so far away from myself,” she said.
“Then again, being a musician, a singer-songwriter, is the most narcissistic thing in the world: 'Look at me! This is how I feel!'”
The two things give her “a really nice balance,” she said.
“If I did the artist thing all the time, I’d be sick of myself. But I also couldn’t be a doctor full time. I’m too emotional.”
A T-shirt that Vanderbilt cardiologist Suzie Brown sells at her folks music shows — "Saving Lives and Playing Dives" (Photo: SuzieBrownSongs.com)
A folk singer/doctor might sound like an odd combination, but Brown grew up with one — her dad, a pulmonologist, played in a 1960s folk trio called Sheila, Sandy and Bob. (He’s “Bob.”)
Crying at her last voice lesson
He and Brown’s mom — a pediatric endocrinologist — would gather their children now and again for fireside folk music sing-alongs.
Brown fell in love with Simon and Garfunkel and "The Sound of Music" soundtrack, dreaming of being Liesl, the oldest Von Trapp daughter.
The little girl loved music, but she was shy, almost always ignoring her father’s pleas to sing louder with the radio during family road trips.
Still, she was obsessed with pop music throughout her childhood and adolescence, listening to Casey Kasem Top 40 radio countdowns and joining the choir for musicals at the summer camps she attended.
After high school, Brown knew she’d study pre-med at Dartmouth College because she was going to be a doctor like her parents, who loved treating and talking about their patients.
Suzie Brown performs in 2000 during her second year of medical school at Harvard University in Boston. (Photo: Submitted)
But Brown never lost her love of music. She joined the Dartmouth Rockapellas and, after getting her undergraduate degree, Brown taught herself guitar and took an eight-week class at Berklee College of Music in Boston before medical school.
“I started crying in my last voice lesson,” she said. “I knew (medical school) would be years and years of studying and hard work and not having time for music.
"But my teacher said, ‘Suzie Brown, you’re so lucky that you’re good at more than one thing. Go be a doctor and make time for music later.'"
At her interview for Harvard Medical School, Brown talked about music so much that the interviewer asked Brown to sing a song, which she did.
“I knew deep down I was going to have to find a way to do both.”
During medical school, residency and a research fellowship in Philadelphia, Brown performed at open mic nights. She needed that to get through the pressures of her studies.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks makes her morning rounds to see her patients at the Nashville hospital on July 10. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )
“In medicine, I felt so judged by pedigree and standing, but I didn’t want to be judged by that at all. In music world, no one asked what I did for a living. I felt so free. I felt like I could be a person,” she said.
“I’m such an emotional person, and I had to suppress that as a doctor.”
A music friend encouraged Brown to start writing songs, and that opened an avenue of self-expression.
Brown remembers shaking hard when she first performed one of her own songs at an Irish pub open mic night in Philadelphia. But the second she finished, Brown wanted to do it again.
“It was like crack. I couldn’t stop.”
Her first album, "Side Streets," came out in fall 2009.
'It's not a career, it's a calling'
She married a songwriter in 2011, started making trips to Nashville in 2012 — and fell in love with Music City.
“All of a sudden we were around creative people everywhere and I felt like my shoulders could relax.”
She and her husband moved here in January 2014, when Brown was seven months pregnant with their first daughter.
Singer, songwriter and Vanderbilt University Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks, right, and her husband, songwriter Scot Sax (his stage name), play a song in the parking lot of Bluebird Cafe as music fans wait to go get a seat in the popular listening room. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )
She has put out an album every two years since. Her latest, "Under the Surface," comes out Friday.
And Brown has established a reputation as an expert transplant cardiologist at Vanderbilt University, where she works half time.
Some patients know she’s a musician, some don’t. Most — who know Brown as Dr. Sacks — rave about her kindness and patience.
Jenny Thomas, 57, of Pinson, Alabama, said she came to Vanderbilt University Medical Center after University of Alabama Birmingham doctors told her there was nothing more they could do for her.
“My own hometown sent me home to die,” she said. “At Vanderbilt, I was treated like a person and I was given hope. And Dr. Sacks lead the team.
“She is the most grounded, beautiful person you could meet,” Thomas said. “And she always gives me a hug.
“For Dr. Sacks, it’s not a career; it’s a calling.”
Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks examines Angela Reeves during her morning rounds at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on July 10. Reeves is waiting on a heart transplant. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )
Brown finds such sentiments moving.
“I really value that. I really value the relationships I have with my patients,” she said. “We get to know each other because they come to me so vulnerable. Patients show me pics of their kids’ weddings — ‘I wouldn’t have been able to attend without you.’”
Such intensity and intimacy can take a toll, though.
But Brown processes those feelings through her music.
“There are pluses and minuses to have two professional loves. I’m so blessed to have my job I love that pays the bills. I love having an artistic side,” she said.
“One of the downsides, I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere. At work, I’m the hippy dippy east Nashville person. And with my musician friends, the fact that I’m a cardiologist separates me from them. I’m not touring all the time, I’m not starving all the time. I feel they view me differently.”
Singer, songwriter and Vanderbilt University Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Suzie Brown Sacks performs at Bluebird Cafe on July 13. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )
At least one songwriter friend doesn’t see Brown like that at all.
Hillary McBride, a one-time "Nashville Star" TV show contestant, said she is inspired by how Brown does two pursuits well while being a mother.
“I obviously admire her. She doesn’t let a title really define her. She is who she is. She’s determined,” McBride said. “She’s such an amazing role model for her daughters. She just does it.”