By Kim Maialetti
It’s Saturday afternoon. Craig Gronczewski, MD, steps up to the microphone with a guitar, closes his eyes, and starts to strum and sing.
The backyard fills with the first notes of “Here Comes the Sun,” and another Full Code jam session is underway.
Gronczewski is chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and one of four Princeton Health doctors who make up the aptly named band.
On guitar is Jasmeet Bajaj, MD, medical director of the Critical and Intermediate Care units.
On bass, Gabe Smolarz, MD, board certified endocrinologist.
And on drums, David Barile, MD, medical director of the Acute Care for the Elderly unit.
These docs rock.
Together, they have decades of education and experience, and a passion for what they do. They are on the frontlines of medicine, caring for some of Central New Jersey’s most vulnerable patients every day.
For them, playing in the band is a way to care for themselves — which is why it feels especially satisfying to pick up their instruments again after a four-month long pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It refuels me,” Barile says. “I think it helps a lot with preventing burnout.”
During the spring, Barile worked seven days a week caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
“I was working every day for two or three months,” says Barile, who still managed to practice the drums every now and then, and brought a guitar to his office in the hospital for those rare moments he took a break.
Research shows that burnout is prevalent among physicians and markedly higher than seen in the general U.S. population. While there had been slight improvement in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated burnout rates.
“It was very emotionally draining,” Bajaj says. “We had some very young patients who either lost their lives or nearly lost their lives. In addition, it was intellectually challenging because as a novel — never before seen — viral infection, ideas and literature on how to best treat it were new and rapidly evolving.”
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Medical Staff Executive Committee at Princeton Health launched a wellness initiative aimed at examining the issue of physician burnout and developing meaningful strategies to address it.
The committee recently encouraged all members of the medical staff to complete a nine-question survey that asks participants to assess their well-being relative to their peers locally and nationally.
The results will help guide the task force in its efforts to mitigate burnout.
“We have to take care of ourselves so we can continue to take good care of our patients.” says Gronczewski, who is helping lead the effort.
In parallel, Penn Medicine has additional physician wellness and burnout prevention efforts underway across the whole system, augmented substantially during COVID-19 by the PennMedicineTogether initiative.
Gronczewski and his bandmates acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress levels to shoot up, but they all expressed confidence that they and their colleagues will get through it.
“We’re all in it together,” Gronczewski says. “There’s a lot of help and support from leadership and from the entire staff. We’re not alone.”
Full Code came together because of the physicians’ shared love of music, not with the specific intention of fighting burnout.
But the band — and the camaraderie it breeds — definitely helps the doctors to de-stress.
After a day of focusing on test results, treatments and prognoses — and communicating all this information to patients and families — being fully focused on the notes, lyrics and harmonies helps to take them somewhere else mentally and emotionally.
“Everything melts away,” Smolarz says.
Smolarz has been in bands since he was a teenager, including a band in medical school called Bicipital Groove, named for the groove in the upper arm bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow.
During rehearsals, he’s the one who manages the set list, making notes in the margins after each song.
Just like they do on patient cases at the hospital, the doctors are constantly collaborating and working to make things better. They take turns on vocals, and offer instruction and feedback on their performance.
A little faster on the drums here, a step down on the chords there.
“I’ve always had a passion for music,” says Bajaj, who began playing instruments as a kid and never stopped, even minoring in music when he was in college. “Music helps me express my emotions, rejuvenate and find my peace.”
Bajaj and Gronczewski first came together for informal jam sessions in the summer of 2018 after realizing they both enjoyed playing guitar.
The idea for Full Code was born last year in response to a call for participants in an employee talent show as part of Princeton Health’s 100-year anniversary celebrations.
They found their bass player in Smolarz, and knew Barile could play guitar and piano. But could he drum?
“I’m not a drummer,” Barile says. “But I always wanted to drum as a kid, and this opportunity came up.”
With the pressures of work, family and now COVID-19, it’s rare that physicians get to take time to do something for themselves, Barile adds.
Full Code gives them that chance.
“It’s a release, and it’s a distraction,” Barile says. “And I finally get to play drums.”