In the 1980s Huey Lewis professed that the heart of rock 'n' roll is still beating. If he ever wants a second opinion on that, he should make an appointment to see physician Steve Valenti or one of his colleagues.
Valenti, a mild-mannered cardiologist at Howard County General Hospital, spends most of his time either at his practice in Columbia, in the emergency room or in the operating room performing such procedures as cardiac catherization. He deals on a daily basis with patients who suffer from such maladies as heart valve problems, palpitations and acute heart attacks.
A clean-cut, soft-spoken individual, Valenti doesn't come across as the type to whip a crowd into a frenzy or play searing guitar solos while performing splits on stage. But take off his stethoscope and place a guitar strap around his neck and brother, watch out.
For the past year and a half Valenti and a bunch of physicians, many of them cardiologists from Johns Hopkins and Howard County General hospitals, have been getting together to jam on stage as Stevie V and the Heart Attackers. These rocking docs have found, through music, a way to let off a little steam while working in a profession that forces them regularly to make life and death decisions.
The band, a rock and roll outfit that plays music from the 1950s to today's top 40, was formed in 1997 by Valenti, David Jackson, Lowell Maughan and Alan Heldman. Valenti says the whole thing came together spontaneously when the time came to celebrate the opening of the Central Maryland Heart Center's new cardiac catherization laboratory in Columbia.
Valenti, Jackson and Maughan all serve on the medical board of directors of the Central Maryland Heart Center, and all three knew the others had musical ability. So one day after a board meeting the idea was brought up that they would put a band together for the event.
Jackson, a lead singer of the band and a cardiologist at Howard County General Hospital, says it wasn't the first time they had thought about playing together. "We had always talked about it. So we figured why don't we just get together as band," Jackson says. "It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. So we finally said, Let's go for it."
The three then recruited Alan Heldman, an interventional cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital; Duke Cameron, a cardiovascular surgeon at the hospital; Drew Burton, a cardiologist based in Baltimore; and Julius Knapp, a manager at the Federal Communications Commission, a close friend of Maughan's and the only band member not involved in medicine.
The first show, performed May 10, 1997, at the VFW Hall in Ellicott City, went so well that the members decided to stick together. The next event for the band is the upcoming Heartfest '99, a gala celebration that will benefit the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. The ninth annual Heartfest will take place Jan. 9 at Martin's West in Baltimore.
While none of the band members plan to quit their day jobs, performing on stage seems to come as second nature to these serious physicians.
Valenti, who performed his first concert in the sixth grade, is perhaps the most seasoned of the bunch. All through his days at the University of Maryland Medical School, his internship and his residency, Valenti played at nightclubs, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs and country clubs. In his college days he opened up for such acts as Three Dog Night, the Drifters and Buddy Rich. But perhaps his fondest moment came three years ago, when he played on stage with Jimmy Buffett at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the prize of a guitar-playing contest sponsored by a radio station out of Washington.
Valenti says he picked up music about the same time he wanted to become a doctor--when he was about 10 years old. For him, music and medicine have always been a complementary pair. In medical school Valenti found he was especially perceptive to listening to heart sounds and rhythms.
"With my music career I was used to rhythms and syncopations. I'm fairly good at picking up songs just by hearing them," Valenti says.
That ability has certainly helped the band as it adds song after song to its repertoire.
The band's current lineup features the original members plus Debbie Dunn, a physician assistant in the emergency room at Howard County; John Kishel, a urologist at Howard County; Michael Gearhart, director of the vascular laboratory at Howard County; Suzanne Patterson, a cardiac catherization lab nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital; and Barry Wells, a urologist at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
The band's lineup is never the same twice, and performances also feature guest performances by other physician/musicians including George Groman, a cardiologist at Howard County; Paul Gertler, a rheumatologist at Howard County; and Jill Shindlebecker, a cardiovascular technician in Steve Valenti's office.
The members agree that getting all these people together to practice, especially doctors who can be on call, has been quite a feat.
"It's near impossible to get everybody to practice all at the same time. We all have different schedules. Valenti is the director of the band, and he makes millions of phone calls to get everyone organized." says Jackson, adding that at a recent practice one of the band members had his beeper go off and had to leave.
However, once the band does actually get together, usually in Maughan's basement, it's all business. Shop talk is usually confined to before and right after practice, so while the juice is flowing through the amps, it's just one big jam fest.
"We have these marathon practices, five to six hours long where we just play song after song," Jackson says. "You wouldn't know we were doctors if you just walked into one of our practices."
The practices routinely start with a list of songs, which the band goes through in order. If a song sounds good, they move on to the next. The band members have diverse musical interests, and it comes across in the set list. One moment the band can sound like the Grateful Dead, and the next, like the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
The whole point of the band, Valenti says, is to show off everyone's individual talents and just to have a good time.
"I was amazed after we got together to find out how much musical talent everyone had. And these are people who haven't played very much in the past 15 to 20 years, or since we've been involved in medicine," Valenti says.
Alan Heldman, the Hopkins cardiologist who plays guitar and sings in the band, says it's not just the musicians who make the music sound so good but also "the really expensive equipment they use."
Heldman adds that these physicians aren't just about playing soft rock or elevator music.
"We like to turn our amps up to 11," Heldman asserts.
The upcoming performance at Heartfest will be only the third show for Stevie V and the Heart Attackers, a name Maughan and Heldman came up with after practice. It was originally Stevie V and the Heart Attack, but they opted for Attackers due to the way they aggressively try to stop heart disease as physicians.
Because of their schedules and limited time, the band members have decided to play only cardiological medical events. Yet doing this just a few times a year is plenty for Valenti.
"A lot of us played before, but because of our professions we let it fall by the wayside," Valenti says. "The main thrill for us to have the chance to play and share music when we would otherwise not have the opportunity to do so. Most of us thought we would never be able to do this again. These guys are really excited to play."
Jackson admits he was shocked when the first few practices actually turned these middle-aged doctors into a band that didn't sound half bad. He adds what a genuinely fun time they all have when they get together.
"This is a fantasy world for us," Jackson says.
The band does let reality seep into their fantasy, however, as on stage the members typically dress in hospital scrubs, complete with surgical masks, booties and the occasional stethoscope.
Valenti says that spotlighting that the musicians are doctors is the band's charm.
"When people see physicians acting ridiculous, it can be rather funny to watch," says Valenti, who has been known to perform jump kicks, splits and the Chuck Berry signature one-legged strut on stage. "The crowd can see that cardiologists and heart-care professionals can still relax and let loose in a social situation. You know, we do have human qualities outside of medicine."