Inside the Mind of a Heart Surgeon

Published: June 04, 2018


For some, laughter is the best medicine. Even food or a healthy dose of vitamin D. But for Dr. Michael Coady, Chief of Cardiac Surgery and Co-director of the Heart & Vascular Institute, it’s music. Surgeon by profession and a gifted pianist by passion, Dr. Coady translates his love of music right into the operating room.

Q: In your mind, what distinctive qualities do playing piano and performing heart surgery have in common?

A: For me, heart surgery and piano performance have a lot in common. Both experiences have a creative purpose. They involve extreme concentration and complete absorption in the present moment. Performing a Beethoven sonata or Scriabin prelude requires dedicated practice to develop dexterity, strength, and precision. It also requires energized focus for extended periods of time. Performing a piece of music becomes intensely pleasurable because while you’re playing, you actually transcend thought all-together. Heart surgery is strikingly similar. It requires many years of training after medical school to refine and master the hand movements, agility, and precision. Operations last typically 5-6 hours at a stretch, so you become extremely immersed in the present moment. Because heart surgery requires speed, you also transcend thought. The operation becomes part of you. The psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state a “flow experience.” It’s the link between both piano performance and open-heart surgery for me, and is the reason that both are so intensely enjoyable.

Q: How exactly did you make the transition from mathematics and piano performance to medicine? Did you wake up one day and think, “I need to be in the operating room?”

A: I loved studying mathematics, and I’d been studying piano since I was 5 years old. The enjoyment of both, however, was highly personal. I wanted something more, and during my third year of college, I had a long discussion with my music professor. Although I loved playing piano, I felt that performance for an audience wasn’t as fulfilling. I talked to her about medicine because I had always admired how doctors could help others. Honestly, I applied to medical school with a single letter of recommendation from my piano professor about my progression that semester with the Rachmaninoff prelude and Beethoven sonata I was studying. I was determined to challenge myself. I was accepted to medical school and found myself drawn toward surgery. The ability to use your hands to physically fix a problem and help someone was exciting. Heart surgery was the most intense, the most elegant, and the most demanding of all surgical specialties. Once I saw it for the first time, I knew instinctively it was the right fit.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring pianist? An aspiring surgeon?

A: For both the aspiring pianist and the surgeon, it’s important to follow your passion in life and develop a “growth mindset.” Studying music for so long has made me a better listener with my patients, and my career has evolved because I’ve followed my heart and used mistakes as an opportunity to improve.

For the aspiring pianist, remember that music is about more than technical facility; it’s about individual expression and communication. Music is about bringing our hearts together.

For the aspiring surgeon, it’s important to always remember how your patients feel. You can be the most talented surgeon, but in order to enjoy a fulfilling career, it involves more than technical facility in the operating room. It’s important to communicate and to bond with your patients.

Q: If you could have dinner with anyone from any era, who would it be and why? What would you talk about?

A: Funny you should ask that question. I would have said Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein, but I was recently lucky enough to be invited to a dinner with the classical pianist and teacher, Seymour Bernstein. I had seen his documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” directed by the actor Ethan Hawke. The documentary is about Seymour’s life as a classical musician, and his philosophical reflections on creativity, and the search for fulfillment. Dinner with Seymour was simply inspiring. We talked about his passion for teaching. I spoke about music and heart surgery, and the journey in life to find your passion - “why I do what I do,” and why it is that many people struggle to find “authenticity.”

Q: What’s your favorite part about working at Stamford Health?

A: The best part of working at Stamford Hospital is the people. We have an amazing team here, one that’s come together organically over the past decade. It’s not only the surgical team who works well, but there is a lot collaboration across various disciplines within the Hospital. The positive energy is infectious.

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Cardiac Surgery, Cardiothoracic Surgery

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