Rupa Marya, MD, was in kindergarten when she announced what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I said I wanted to be a ballerina and a surgeon,” Dr. Marya recalled.
The girl's disparate interests worried her teacher, but not her mother, who said she was confident her daughter would figure things out.
Dr. Marya's mother was right. Nearly thirty years later, Dr. Marya is a doctor and a musician, spending half the year as a hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the other six months touring and performing as lead singer and guitarist of the band Rupa & the April Fishes.
“I always thought there was a tie-in between what I do in medicine and what I do in music,” said Dr. Marya. “It's a real privilege to find this kind of balance.”
Dr. Marya, 34, is not unique in her ability to combine a career in medicine with the pursuit of some other passion. But what makes her unusual is that her music isn't a side interest — it's as central to what she does as caring for patients.
“I like to say I'm the worst-paid doctor and the best-paid musician in San Francisco,” said Dr. Marya, whose 2010 touring schedule includes performances in Zurich, Istanbul, Berlin, London, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Her music has been described as “global agit-pop,” an eclectic mix of instruments and multi-language lyrics that are written in French, Spanish, English and some Hindi.
Publicity materials describe her band's two albums, “eXtraOrdinary rendition” and “Este Mundo,” as having musical elements of Gypsy swing, Latin cumbia, French chanson, American folk and Indian ragas—in other words, an “intersection of different cultures,” according to Dr. Marya.
She started out on a traditional path to being a doctor. The child of Indian immigrants, she was born and raised in the Bay area and also spent part of her childhood living in France and India. She did her undergraduate work at UC San Diego, followed by medical school at Georgetown.
The demands of studying didn't allow for much else, but when she found time she played around on her folk guitar, wrote some songs and performed occasionally at local coffee houses. “The songs weren't very good,” Dr. Marya recalled, “but I was learning the architecture of music.”
It was during her first year as a resident in internal medicine at UCSF that Dr. Marya's interest in music began to really tug on her. She loved being a doctor, but also felt her life would be off kilter if music wasn't a big part of it. She shared her dilemma with Harry Hollander, FACP, who directs the hospital's internal medicine residency program.
“I said to Dr. Hollander, ‘I think I'm going to be a much better artist if I'm a doctor and I'm doing to be a much better doctor if I'm an artist.’” She went on to finish her residency on a part-time schedule.
“The next two years were split up over four years and it was absolutely wonderful,” she said. “For the first time I could see there was a possibility of melding medicine and music.”
Making it work
Now she tries to carve out at least one-month blocks of uninterrupted time at the hospital so her patients have her undivided attention, and she reserves most of the summer for performing on the road since it's the season for music festivals and other venues that provide a living for her five touring bandmates.
According to Robert M. Wachter, FACP, chief of UCSF's Division of Hospital Medicine, the hospital benefits from the arrangement.
“Rupa is a wonderful physician whose musical life adds a unique dimension to our group. She is dynamic, worldly, and remarkably humble for one who is so accomplished,” he said.
While Dr. Marya is the first rock-star/hospitalist to come along at UCSF, the hospital has accommodated other physicians who want to take on a new challenge. “One of our hospitalists spent four months last year working for the group Partners in Health, providing health care for some of the world's neediest people in Burundi. I think that having people with these kinds of interests, who can make these kinds of contributions, adds tremendously to the vitality and impact of our group,” Dr. Wachter said.
Dr. Marya thinks of herself as a storyteller who chronicles human struggles, whether they are stories inspired by trips to the U.S.-Mexico border or making her rounds at UCSF.
“I don't think I ever meet a patient and think, ‘Wow, this would make a great song,’ but six months later an image may come back to me,” she said. A recent performance in San Francisco, for instance, was inspired by undocumented workers she encountered in her hospital work, including a 45-year-old woman who died of breast cancer after delaying treatment, perhaps out of fear that her illegal status would be discovered.
“When you work as a hospitalist, you see the whole range of society,” Dr. Marya said. “Taking care of people who are sick and dying gives you an interesting perspective on life.”
Dr. Marya is sometimes asked which career she would pick if she could only have one. “I think there will be times in my life when I want to focus more on medicine and times I will focus more on music, but I don't think I could do one without the other,” she said. “I get antsy when I'm away from the hospital too long. It provides an intellectual satisfaction I can't get anywhere else.”