Daryl Wilson was a medical student on rotation in the emergency department when a man with severe chest pain was rushed in along with his family. Wilson was briefing them on the father’s condition when the teenage son suddenly stopped him short: “You’re Daryl. You’re the singer for the BollWeevils!”
“Yes, I am,” Wilson said. “But right now your father’s having a heart attack.”
Sometimes nurses at Edward Hospital in Naperville, IL, tell patients, “Your doctor’s a rock star” before Wilson – a 6’5” African-American man with dreadlocks – walks in the room. Patients joke, “You’re not going to stage dive on me right now, are you?” Wilson takes the remarks in stride, glad that his after-hours gig as lead singer of a Chicago punk band can serve to lighten otherwise tense, traumatic situations.
Wilson’s passion for medicine outdates his passion for music. As he witnessed both of his grandparents die of cancer, he found that their physicians were distant, making the time, “a cold, not a very ‘alive’ experience.” The physicians didn’t talk about the next step in care or acknowledge the gravity of the situation. “My grandfather needed more from the physicians,” says Wilson. “My family needed more.” Before his grandmother died, she told him he would make a good doctor because he was caring. He was only seven years old, but he took the words to heart.
Daryl threw himself into science but soon found that examining molecules was no release for his teenage angst. He took up skateboarding and aggressive punk rock music, discovering that the music fed a side of him that science couldn’t quite satisfy. He had to feed both the analytical and artistic parts of his brain, “to make myself feel whole.”
In 1989, a group of guys starting a punk band picked Wilson out of the milieu of fellow diehard Naked Raygun fans and said they wanted him to sing. They had no idea if he had any talent whatsoever, they simply liked that he had “the front man look.” He was tall, aggressive, and he stood out in a crowd. Fortunately for them, Wilson could sing – and he could write music too. And thus, in the same year that Wilson started his biology major at Illinois Benedictine College, the BollWeevils were born.
It would prove tricky to balance pre-med and punk rock, but Wilson did his best. He studied during the day and played clubs at night, juggling his schedules to practice on the weekend. Then the BollWeevils got big, playing on stages with Chicago bands like Naked Raygun and Youth Brigade. They even signed with two record companies—one the biggest mail-order punk rock company in the world. Wilson managed a band tour along with his medical rotations and still made time for practice as he started his residency. He knew he had to have both music and medicine – “It was like my workout, my mental workout.”
The band got offers to tour in Japan and Europe, but the front man’s first commitment to medicine created rifts. His bandmates wanted to chase the rock band dream, but Wilson wanted to fulfill his grandmother’s words. “Those words still echo,” said Wilson. “I still want to uphold that dream she had of me.”
Ultimately, the band broke up – and not amicably. Over the years that followed, Wilson continued to play music and practice medicine. The rest of the band grew up and got steady jobs, wives and kids. And then, in 2003, a fan working at a local radio station pleaded with the band to get together for one more gig – a benefit. By then the sore feelings had healed and they agreed to get together for a practice try. It was like they’d never stopped playing; in fact, Daryl felt that they were better than before. They got together for another gig in 2006 and now they’re back again – a little older, some a little balder, but a lot better at balancing music with the rest of life.
Wilson’s job as front man readies him for the outsized role of physician. It helps him release the emotion of dealing with trauma each day. “You can’t just scream in the middle of a shift,” said Wilson. Through music he can release the frustration and elation of losing and saving lives each day. One song, called “John Doe,” describes dissecting a cadaver:
“And now he’s lying still in a room full of people all alone. A body bag is his new home. The smell of formalin is strong, it’s strong.” Another song looks at the exhaustion that doctors experience on shifts that last hours: “Stress ebbs at every angle and I’m running out of strength.” Wilson isn’t the first punk rocker to sing of love as a disease, but he might be the first to include such terms as “angina” and “infarct.”
“I’m septic with your burning love!” he screams into the mike.
The connection between punk rock and emergency medicine might seem distant to some, but not to Daryl Wilson. To him, leaping out in front of an audience to bellow his songs requires the same kind of game face necessary in the emergecy department.
“We as emergency physicians have to perform. You always have to be up on your A-game.”
In the ED, that performance means showing patients a strong, kind face even when he’s at the edge of exhaustion and in the thick of a crisis. And, while more subtle than a sweat-drenched set, this performance certainly takes energy and enthusiasm. In the end, however, both performances have their adrenaline-pumping reward.
“To blurt out a song, to jump around on stage, to let out excessive energy–it’s just like the feeling of accomplishment when you resuscitate a patient succesfully. It’s that same kind of feeling.”