Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Celebrating a Life: Dr. Susan Spencer

On Saturday evening, December 5, 2009, Longwood Symphony performed its first concert of the season in NEC's Jordan Hall.

Our Community Partner was the American Epilepsy Society, which collaborated with the LSO with the specific goal of raising funds to launch a new fund, the Susan Spencer Clinical Epilepsy Research Fund, in memory of Dr. Susan Spencer. Dr. Spencer's stellar accomplishments included Chair of the Yale Medical School's Neurology Department, with a specialty in epilepsy and past-President of the AES. She was married to Dr. Dennis Spencer, Chair of Neurosurgery at Yale Medical School, and was the mother of twin daughters, Dr. Andrea Spencer and Dr. Joanne Spencer.

Dr. Susan Spencer was an oboist and harpist, deftly balancing her music and medicine. Her daughters followed suit: Joanne is a flutist and Andrea is a violist. Both were music majors at Yale; both then went to medical school at Columbia and Harvard, respectively.

"The apple does not fall far from the tree"

Like her mother, Andrea Spencer is a master at juggling many balls at once.
Andrea joined the LSO in 2003 as a 1st year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She devoted her summers to working with traumatized children in Honduras and elsewhere, sharing her medicine and music wherever she went. With the LSO, she helped organize a symposium on International Women's Day that showcased the work of ten remarkable young medical professionals. Last year, she organized an even more ambitious symposium exploring the intersection of medicine and music, "Crossing the Corpus Callosum" [see blog entry January 2009], that included her own distinguished father as a speaker. Even through the notoriously busy years as a 3rd year student and as an intern (when we expect to see little of our LSO musicians), Andrea found a way to perform in most of the season's concerts. The Spencer family, Dennis, Susan and Joanne were often there in the audience.

In October we launched the year with LSO on Call, bringing music to patients across the city who can no longer attend concert performances. Andrea's group performed at Sarah Care in Dorchester, a senior day center for Vietnamese refugees who have settled in Boston. Their choice of Dvorak's "American" String Quartet had a special poignancy for these new Americans.

As a member of the Board, Andrea Spencer was working closely with other colleagues to refine our "Healing Art of Music" program that selects and then works with medical nonprofits to raise awareness and funds around our concert performances.

How difficult yet how profoundly fitting it was that, after the sudden loss of Dr. Susan Spencer in late spring, the Spencer family requested that our first concert be dedicated to establishing a new fund in Susan's name to further research on epilepsy. Thus the American Epilepsy Society was named an LSO Community Partner. We were proud and moved to make a contribution in this way.

The concert drew nearly 900 people, including 325 neurologists from across the country. Many others sent donations to the Susan Spencer Clinical Epilepsy Research Fund.

The music (chosen over a year ago) was also profoundly fitting - the New England Premiere of Giya Kancheli's "STYX", a work for mixed chorus, large orchestra and a viola soloist. Written in memory of some of his dearest friends, Kancheli has created a work depicting Charon, the boatman who ferried souls between the land of the living and the dead, across the river Styx.

There is a clear parallel between Charon's role and that of our own as physicians and musicians, We are privileged and challenged to serve as healers and comforters as we walk with our patients and audiences to the shores between life and death.