Damian Brezinski: Using medicine and music to ‘Keep the Beat Alive’ ("1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Damian Brezinski, cardiologist and founder of "Keep the Beat Alive", is on "1on1 with Jon Evans"

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Anyone who knows Damian Brezinski knows he marches to his own beat. Actually, it’s two beats. Heart beats and music beats. Cardiology and chords. He’s used both of those talents over 30-plus years to save and improve people’s lives across the United States.

“It was one of those things where I have two very different skill sets, and I did search for a decent while trying to figure out how those two skill sets fit together,” says the 56-year-old Pennsylvania native who has called the Wilmington-area home for the past 25 years.

Damian’s training in both of those skill sets is tough to match. Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Duke for medicine, Berklee for music. Highest level institutions all. They provided the learning opportunity to a young man thirsty for the knowledge. Damian has spent the rest of his life trying to balance both talents and loves, along with helping his wife Suzie raise four boys.

“It’s Dad and husband first, that’s a slam dunk,” he says. “I’ve been a musician longer, medicine slightly shorter. I’d call them equal footing because I think the most important thing is having balance in life. I’ve always had music and medicine in my adult life. Every time one is more than the other, I always feel like things are a little out of kilter. It’s important to have that life balance, and that’s really what I strive for.”

Music got an early hold on the youngest of Mary and Edward Brezinski’s four children. Damian remembers banging around on instruments with friends while growing up in the small coal-mining town of Nanticoke. He played in a few bands and used the guitar as an outlet while excelling in the classroom. Those stellar grades earned him a full scholarship to nearby King’s College, which allowed Damian to blaze new trails while embarking on a pre-med education.

“There was all this opportunity,” he says about the college situated in downtown Wilkes-Barre. “There was an old electron microscope that no one was using. There was a mass spectrometer that no one used. I said, ‘I want to learn electron microscopy’. They literally handed me the text books and said ‘if you can learn it, you can do it’. It was a perfect fit for me.”

Medical school at Johns Hopkins followed. Damian then moved on to Harvard Medical School to train in clinical research. With no place to stay, he reached out to a childhood friend, Tony Dimito, who was living at Berklee College of Music, also located in Boston. The living arrangement turned into Damian taking classes at Berklee while doing his post-doctorate work at Harvard. We talked about the experiences, and the friendships forged with artists that include Edwin McCain and Ken Block, starting at 14:14 of the podcast.

“My intent was to leave medical school and become a full-time musician,” Damian says. “Then I started attending music theory (classes) and watching 16- and 17-year-old prodigies who could do things on a guitar I could never imagine in my best years. I started to realize ‘yeah, well maybe my niche isn’t being on the front playing the 16th arpeggio here’. So it was just a matter of finding my niche in music, because I knew I enjoyed it and I knew there was a role for me there somewhere.”

Medicine became the priority again, and after some training in London and Australia, Damian chose to complete his fellowship at Duke University Medical Center. A trip to the coast to visit a friend led to an interview at Wilmington Health Associates, but the organization did not have any open positions in Damian’s field. Fate intervened, though, after he left Wilmington headed to another job opportunity.

“As I’m going north on I-40 the car phone rings,” Damian remembers. “The Chief of Cardiology (at WHA) called me and said ‘Remember when I told you we didn’t have a job?’ He said ‘One of our people is dialing back, and you’ve got an opportunity’. I promptly got off (the interstate), turned around and signed the contract. Best decision I ever made.”

Damian spent more than 20 years with Wilmington Health Associates, until a health scare forced him to gear down his hectic schedule. “I was sitting in my office, and woke up face down on the floor,” is how Damian remembers it. It was a large blood clot in his lung, known as a pulmonary embolism. He also suffered from cardiomyopathy. Once a pacemaker was implanted, and recovery began, the man known for going at mach-3 speed faced a decision. Actually, friends and family didn’t give him much of a chance to decide. They gave him a mandate.

“Everyone in my life knew that if I went back to the schedule I had, that I was wanting to go back to, my funeral would be forthcoming,” Damian says. “The wonderful people in my life said, ‘We’re just not going to have it! You’re not going to do this. You are to be here longer than that!’. That really gives you pause when the people in your life say ‘No. Stop. You’re stopping now’.”

So, he did. Damian scaled back, retiring from WHA to start what he calls “a retirement practice”, Island Cardiology, in Carolina Beach. Music fans will recognize the billboard ads, which resemble the album cover of “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd.

By that time, Damian had become an advocate for heart health in the Wilmington community. He volunteered to be Chairman of the 2009 Cape Fear Heart Ball and asked his good friend Edwin McCain to provide the entertainment. At the end of the successful evening, the two friends, along with the Mayor of Wilmington, Bill Saffo, hatched the idea for what would become Chords for a Cause, Damian’s first non-profit organization marrying music and medicine. He tells the story starting at 30:00 of the podcast.

“We had a lot of fun with it,” he says about the five-year run of high- profile performers, including McCain, Sister Hazel and Vanessa Carlton, playing alongside the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. “Every show sold out. Ultimately, we raised a very healthy seven figure sum for the community. It was all grass roots, everything came right back to Wilmington. No one ever took a salary. It was my toe into how a non-profit organization could help and, more importantly, how music brings people together in a constructive way to do a greater good.”

Damian’s current project, Keep the Beat Alive, which we talk about at 34:15 of the podcast, had a much more auspicious beginning. Chris Musgrave, a veteran tour manager and friend, happened to be in Wilmington working with the band Fuel in 2012 when he suffered his third heart attack. Damian was on site, got Chris to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, and saved his life. The cardiologist’s two skills were about to merge in a much bigger way.

“I had worked a lot in the music industry,” he says. “Until then, literally at that moment, I’d kept the fact that I was a doctor away from the people I worked with in the music industry because, frankly, it hurts your credibility in music. People assumed you were some type of dabbler or diletante just kind of hobbying. I didn’t want to be ‘a good musician for a doctor’. I didn’t want to be ‘a good music producer for a doctor’. I wanted to be a good music producer, so I kept it quite secret. I had to explain to Chris ‘Well, we never discussed my day job, but I’m an interventional cardiologist at NHRMC and you’re having a heart attack’.”

Through Chris’ episode, Damian learned about the rampant cardiac issues throughout the touring industry. Higher-than-average rates of heart attacks force concert cancellations on a regular basis, costing millions of dollars. Though skeptical at first, Damian began to see the need for action. Who better to intervene than an Interventional Cardiologist?

“At first we weren’t really sure what we were going to do,” he remembers. “We knew it was something, but the worst thing you want to do as a doctor is to walk into a room with a bunch of rock stars and say, ‘You know, you really should stop smoking, drinking and doing drugs!’ You’re not going to last in the room very long! We spent a lot of time carefully thinking, ‘Okay, how are we going to get this message out?’

Months of research and consultation later, Keep the Beat Alive took its’ first step, installing automatic external defibrillators on the tour buses that carry entertainers and crews between shows, and provide the training to operate them. When stories came back of successful saves, the idea started to catch on. Keep the Beat Alive is now accepted, and in some cases, tours don’t begin until Damian and his wife Suzie have finished training the tour staff.

“We went from kind of this little engine that could, knocking on doors and people wondering why we’re there in the first place, to, fast-forward to 2019, I opened up my calendar January 1st and we are booked solid for the year,” Damian said. “We did that in three days. We are booked with everybody from Kenny Chesney, Def Leppard, Journey, Kiss and others.”

So, Damian Brezinski will continue to save lives in 2019. He will do it from his medical practice in Carolina Beach, and he will take his passion on the road, to make sure the band you want to see perform is healthy enough to take the stage. I hope you enjoy this interview with my good friend as much as I enjoyed being with him.

You can hear my full interview with Dr. Damian Brezinski by clicking on any of the links below.

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Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved.