Every year before the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) meeting, ophthalmologists are cramming to prepare lectures and presentations, and put finishing touches on their slide decks.
Anthony Aldave, MD, and Terry Kim, MD, are no exceptions.
There is, however, one major difference: Their preparation includes hours of conducting sound checks, working on music set lists, and testing sound equipment. For the seventh consecutive year, both ophthalmologists will be behind the DJ booth at a private event at this year’s ASCRS meeting.
During the day, Dr. Kim is professor of ophthalmology, chief of the Cornea and External Disease Division, and director of Refractive Surgery Service, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC. In his free time, he is a DJ who goes by the handle DJ Special K, a name that he said simultaneously connotes healthy, positive vibes, while also having a dark, mysterious side.
Dr. Aldave, known as DJ AJA, is professor of ophthalmology, Walton Li Chair in Cornea and Uveitis, chief of the Cornea and Uveitis Division, and director of the Cornea and Refractive Surgery Fellowship, Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles.
With his father being a jazz musician, Dr. Kim had a musical upbringing, playing classical piano for about 15 years. However, it became tough for him to continue with classical music in high school when everyone else was more interested in sports, dances, and parties.
“I was looking to make a shift into something else,” Dr. Kim said.
Dr. Kim's original DJ equipment.
He remembered seeing an audio mixer at a music store in suburban New York, and spontaneously decided to buy it. Dr. Kim started mixing as a hobby in the 1980s, when the digital aspect of “DJing” did not yet exist.
Dr. Kim's setup when he was first starting as a DJ.
He would collect cassette tapes, manually count the beats per minute to mix songs, and play his mixes for neighbors. Over time, he started getting more serious, playing for some clubs in Manhattan and even playing for a small New Year’s Eve party.
Once Dr. Kim started pre-med studies, however, he couldn’t manage the labor intensiveness of the analog music with his extreme workload.
“[DJing] totally came to an abrupt end,” he said.
Continuing his work as an ophthalmologist, Dr. Kim said his passion was re-sparked about 7 years ago when he ran into Dr. Aldave at an ophthalmic meeting. Dr. Aldave encouraged Dr. Kim to get back into mixing music, telling him how it much it had changed.
“It opened my eyes to the digital era of music,” Dr. Kim recalled. At that same time, the Cornea Society was looking to liven up meetings and increase membership to appeal to members of all ages.
“It has blossomed into the star attraction for these meetings,” said Gail Albert, executive director for the Cornea Society. “And it has increased our visibility among the younger physician demographic.”
While the DJ duo started mixing together at the 2010 World Cornea Congress VI meeting with about 200 people, the event has grown to attract an audience of about 1,700.
In the past several years, Dr. Kim and Dr. Aldave have had the opportunity to DJ together at a club in Las Vegas during an American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting, and also in Taiwan for an Asia Cornea Society meeting.
In 2008, Dr. Aldave shows his then 2-year-old son how to use a basic DJ mixer.
“It’s really an honor…you’re kind of the engine behind the party,” Dr. Aldave said. “It’s like you’re living the dream.”
For him, DJing came as a result of hearing the same music played over and over for hours in the operating room. He would enjoy creating mixes of different songs and play them while operating.
“The work is finding [the different songs]; the fun part is playing it,” he said.
He said most of the time, his younger patients never believe that it’s his mix playing in the operating room. “The only way to prove it is to give them a link to my SoundCloud page,” he said, adding that it helps him connect with his younger patients.
Dr. Aldave says DJing also gives his residents an opportunity to see another side of him. “[Normally] they see me as an uptight old guy, but when they see me in the DJ booth enjoying myself, I think it gives me some street credibility,” he joked.
He laughed at the irony of performing at meetings where his music often draws hundreds of people, whereas his lectures only draw half the number of people, with only a quarter of them actually paying attention.
“You’re so busy running with your head cut off, running from session to session,” Dr. Kim explained. “It’s kind of nice to take a break and prepare a set list.”
With ophthalmologists often having workweeks that surpass 80 to 90 hours, Anthony Aldave, MD, and Terry Kim, MD, agree on the importance of finding a balance between being committed to one’s work and also having a life outside of it.
“My advice has always been that you’ve got to find that balance,” Dr. Kim said. “What are you passionate about? Pursue it. Go for it. Whoever would think I would be [a DJ] for these national eye meetings I go to twice a year?”
Dr. Kim says having a hobby outside of work is one of the key ways to avoid burnout. He also looks for other ways to relate his colleagues and revitalize friendships around things other than work.
Especially for young ophthalmologists, Dr. Kim stresses the importance of keeping a balance of personal enjoyment in with hectic work schedules.
“Don’t give up the other stuff,” he said. “You never know when it’ll come back around to enhance and bring joy to your life.”
In the same way, retiring ophthalmologists could benefit from the external activities and interests in the same way.
“It’s imperative to find that hobby to engage your mind,” Dr. Kim said.
He remembers what a huge life change it was when his father, an OB/GYN, retired.
“But he kept his interest in music going. He composes music and plays saxophone for his church,” Dr. Kim said. “A hobby continues even after your professional career is over.”
“The best way to ensure balance is to make commitments to things you don’t want to break,” Dr. Aldave advised.
For example, when people want to exercise more or learn a new sport, he suggests hiring an instructor, even if it is $100/hour.
“That way you won’t miss [the appointment],” he said. “You need to make an appointment for it just like you do with everything else in your life.”