From Rock to Docs

As two medical students graduate, they look back at their time as drummers in bands—and the connection between music and medicine

You wouldn’t necessarily think drumming in a rock band as an undergraduate would lead naturally to medical school—but for two medical graduates this year, it did. Benji Dossetter and Philip Tracy both had bands in college—Sports and Applewagon, respectively—cutting albums, touring in the requisite minivan, dealing with sometimes shady venue operators, and enjoying the rock ’n’ roll life.

But medical school called. In fact, Dossetter, whose grandfather was a doctor, says he knew from two weeks before college started that he wanted to become a doctor, and headed to Tufts University School of Medicine right after graduation.

For Tracy, it was a bit longer of a road. His grandmother, father, and uncle are all doctors, and he was certain he didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. But in his early twenties, he says, “I was able to admit that maybe my parents were right about one thing, so I got a job volunteering at a hospital after work—and loved it.” Working later at Dana Farber and seeing firsthand the positive results of new melanoma treatments “was the ‘Oh shoot, I want to go to medical school and do this full time’ moment,” he says.

Sports poses for a promo shot; Benji Dossetter is third from left.  Sports poses for a promo shot; Benji Dossetter is third from left.

Both Dossetter and Tracy were drawn to music early, playing multiple instruments starting in grade school. At Hamilton College, Tracy had a friend who was starting a band; Tracy asked if they needed a keyboardist, his first choice. Nope—but they needed a drummer, and he got the nod. That was the beginning of Applewagon.

“Initially we played sweaty frat parties and campus events, and then we ended up recording an album at the end of senior year, and did a couple of small tours around the Northeast while we were on break from college,” he says. They tried to make a go of it after college—in the depths of the 2009 recession—but ended up apart working in New York and Boston. That’s when Tracy started to get the itch for medicine, though Applewagon has reunited for shows since then, and even recorded an EP—The Cruise Director—a couple of years ago.

Dossetter got together with friends at Kenyon College to form the band Sports (“not a great name for a band,” he says—multiple bands sport that name). Initially he played guitar, but switched to drums “because everyone needs a drummer.” They played their indie jangle pop at Kenyon, then around other colleges in Ohio. They recorded a demo they released called Sunchokes, which started picking up traction online. They’d drive to weekend gigs in New York City.

Philip Tracy drumming for Applewagon.Philip Tracy drumming for Applewagon.

Just as the band members were graduating from college, Sports recorded a second album, All of Something, which was picked up by the Father/Daughter label. Rolling Stone called it “full of smart, sweetly slashing indie-rock.” They did a short tour that summer, and after Dossetter’s first year at the School of Medicine, the band did a big tour—the East Coast, the Midwest, and part of the South—before he had to hit the books again. Since then, Dossetter has focused on medicine, and the band rebranded themselves as Remember Sports, and is still active.

Having finished their exams, the two were having coffee at Jaho on Washington Street in late April. I ask them if there is a common strand between music and medical school. “On one level, it’s having a practice—with drumming you get good about sitting down and focusing, and you also bring it back to a group setting, which is a lot of what medicine is about,” says Tracy. “You have to have that base of knowledge, but then you are working with a lot of other individuals.”

“I agree,” says Dossetter. “It’s relatively unusual to be able to translate intense solo effort into a group setting. I think the band part of it—and a lot of different types of communication that need to be mastered for that—is very translatable to medicine. You have to be able to interact with a lot of different people in ways that are sometimes subtle.”

Graduation from medical school on May 19 is just the first step. In mid-June Dossetter heads to Seattle Children’s Hospital for a pediatric residency. “I always wanted to do pediatrics—I always liked kids,” he says. “I think their problems are more interesting than adult problems, too. I want to do a fellowship in pediatric infectious disease after the residency.”

Tracy is staying closer to campus: his residency in internal medicine is at Tufts Medical Center. “I’ve always been interested in hematology/oncology, so if I took a guess, I think I might end up doing that,” he says.

Sports plays their song “Reality TV” at a studio in Cleveland in 2016.

Looking far ahead, what music is going to be playing in their waiting rooms? Pediatrician-to-be Dossetter laughs, and says it’ll have to be Disney Radio—but then catches himself. “We have to get the kids into good music early on—classic rock,” he says. “It would be a mélange of Disney music and Led Zeppelin. Oy vey.”

Tracy has more leeway: he suggests Brian Eno soundscapes for his waiting room—Music for Airports or maybe Music for Films.

Then Dossetter perks up again. “I’ve got it, kids love ‘Crocodile Rock’ by Elton John—and I like it, too.”

“Would you get the Elton glammed-out white coat to match?” asks Tracy.

“Oooh, that would be cool,” says Dossetter. “I love Elton.”

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