BY AILEEN MORONEY
|WHAT IS WELL KNOWN ABOUT A P&S EDUCATION AND THE ARTS is this: Medical students bring their arts interests and talents with them to medical school, many continue to pursue them during medical school and residency, and some graduates have fulfilling medical careers augmented by artistic avocations. What follows is a tale of two 21st century P&S graduates who are pursuing their artistic futures in different ways.
One has done what many of his predecessors have done continued medical training but kept his musical ambitions active. Another has done what some graduates Walker Percy'41 among them have done: turned to writing without continuing in medicine.
Eamonn Vitt'02 is a musician who is still in a residency but has recorded four collections of songs. Dustin Thomason'03 is a published writer excited about continuing a career as a novelist. Drs. Vitt and Thomason started P&S as classmates, but Dusty Thomason took a year off to get another degree.
The Story of
As a high school student in the late 1980s, Dr. Vitt was drawn to the punk rock scene in his hometown of Berlin, N.J., just outside Philadelphia.
"A lot of the music I listened to in high school was very activist in nature," he says. "I found myself drawn to bands that had a political message."
When he entered Boston University in 1992, Dr. Vitt who taught himself how to play bass and guitar started a jazz rock band with two classmates he says were "more serious musicians than I was." The group, named Karate, started touring and signed a record deal with Southern Records in London. The group released several singles and two full-length records.
Dr. Vitt toured with the band for about five years, then left Karate to go to medical school. But entering P&S in 1998 hardly put an end to his musical career. Instead, he just made a transition from being part of a band to being a solo artist, specifically a singer-songwriter. He describes the process of writing his own songs as "cathartic."
"It's usually just me and the acoustic guitar, and I think that the songs just kind of come out," he explains. "I'm feeling a certain way and I just have to get some emotion or sensibility out of my system. It's mostly about relationships, telling people certain things that I'd be unsuccessful telling them in person. I feel a lot better, a lot clearer after recording a song."
Throughout college and medical school, Dr. Vitt's tastes in music evolved, and he now counts such singer-songwriters as Tom Waits and Neil Young as his primary influences, with some Bruce Springsteen and Elliott Smith thrown in.
Dr. Vitt's first solo recording, a five-song EP called "Old Wave New Ride," debuted in December 2001, during his fourth year at P&S. He wrote the songs while on his primary care rotation on the Zuni reservation in Zuni, N.M.
"I was in the middle of the desert with my guitar and a four-track recorder," he says. "There wasn't a whole lot to do when you left the hospital."
He recorded his second album, "Deserted Music," over the course of a month in a Brooklyn studio, and it was released by the New York City-based independent label the Self-Starter Foundation in March 2003. Arranged with more piano and more horns, Dr. Vitt believes that this second effort has a "thicker, lusher content." He has toured throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.
Dr. Vitt turned to a career in medicine because it held much of the same appeal punk music did when he was a teen. "For me, punk music became linked to medicine, because many of the shows I went to benefited an urban clinic or a homeless shelter. I've always wanted to be an activist and work toward positive social change, and medicine, for me, became the way to do that."
He also credits his parents for turning him toward the more altruistic aspects of medicine. "My parents my mother is a former Catholic nun and my father is a former Christian brother were very insistent that their kids do something with their lives to help those less fortunate. They were a big influence in my decision to enter medicine and to work as a primary care doctor for the underserved both domestically and abroad."
Now in his final year of a three-year residency in family medicine at Columbia, Dr. Vitt completed an elective rotation in Johannesburg, South Africa, in April 2004, where he worked with pediatric HIV/AIDS patients. Next spring he will travel to Valore, India, with the Yale/Johnson & Johnson International Physicians Scholars Program.
has a Publicist
Author Dustin Thomason'03, like Walker Percy, has opted to replace a career in medicine with a full-time writing career and a publicist. His first novel, "The Rule of Four," was released in May 2004 and quickly climbed to the top of the Amazon charts. The book, which Mr. Thomason co-authored with childhood friend Ian Caldwell, revolves around four Princeton seniors who uncover the secret of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real-life Renaissance text written in 1499.
"They discover the secret hidden within the text, and when another researcher on campus is murdered, they realize they're not the first to make the discovery," says Dr. Thomason.
"We knew we wanted to set the book at a university, but we needed some sort of hook," he says. "Ian was taking a course at Princeton on Renaissance art, science, and magic, and his professor suggested that he look into the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The book has been a mystery to scholars for 500 years and continues to be today. No one knows what it really means.
"As soon as I heard about it, it seemed totally natural to start thinking about this book and what sort of thriller we could wrap around it."
Mr. Thomason says that writing has been in his blood for a long time. He met Mr. Caldwell in the third grade, and together they worked on a number of school plays and other creative writing endeavors. In the spring of 1998, the two decided to try to write a novel together.
Despite his dedication to writing, Dr. Thomason entered P&S after graduating from Harvard in 1998. "In my heart of hearts I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what it meant to be a writer full time," he says. "Being a doctor was something I really thought I would enjoy, and I thought it was a realistic means of supporting myself."
After his third year, Dr. Thomason decided to pursue an MBA. Having the degree, he feels, gave him insight into the publishing business and likely gave him a leg up on other first-time authors. However, he also had other motivations for extending his Columbia education.
"I was trying to hold off on making any decisions about whether I was going to do a residency, because I knew if I did, it would become harder and harder to write," he says. "I thought, let me put off med school graduation and hope the book will eventually get accepted for publication. I got lucky." Just as Dr. Thomason was beginning his fourth year at P&S in the fall of 2002, Dial Press, a division of Random House, accepted "The Rule of Four" for publication.
"It made the decision pretty easy for me. Once we had some success with the book, I decided to take the plunge and become a full-time writer," he says. A devoted Stephen King fan since he was a youngster, Dr. Thomason now looks to such authors as John Grisham, Caleb Carr, and Philip Roth for inspiration.
"Stephen King's ability to mix character development with high-concept storylines is something I've always envied and really enjoyed," he says. "Now, my favorite authors run the gamut from traditional thriller writers to more literary writers."
The two authors have actively promoted the book, appearing on "Good Morning, America," meeting with booksellers, and participating in readings. They were also featured in a New York Times article. They are beginning work on a second novel, another thriller that combines a historical secret with a modern-day story. They hope it will be published within the next two years.
At this point, Dr. Thomason has no intention to return to medicine.
"It's amazing how often medicine influences my thinking, even when I'm writing," he says. "But I think that in writing, I've found something I love to do and makes me excited to get up in the morning. Until that goes away, I can't imagine doing anything else."
Even though Eamonn Vitt and Dusty Thomason have chosen to take different paths after graduating from medical school, they both agree that the atmosphere at P&S offered them the opportunity to pursue their artistic interests. "The arts are definitely encouraged at P&S," says Dr. Vitt. "In my classmates, I was completely surrounded by people doing all sorts of things, paying attention to the arts in a very serious way. From day one, I was blown away."
Dr. Thomason concurs. "The arts are a large part of P&S. Being around these people who really love the arts and are still these amazing doctors-in-training was inspiring to me."
The balance between science and art, says Dr. Vitt, is what makes P&S special.
"Learning the basic sciences the physiology, the pharmacology is very important, but I think everyone who got into medical school can do that," he says. "What separates us, what makes P&S a great institution, is that we're forced to pay attention to the more subtle things, the humanistic aspects. It makes medicine a more profound, rewarding profession."
For more about Dr. Vitt and Dr. Thomason and their art, visit their Web sites: www.eamonnvitt.com and www.ruleoffour.com
ILLUSTRATION: TOBY MORISON