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When music is the best medicine

The current crisis has seen the public applauding doctors and nurses like rock stars but Joe O’Sullivan from Wexford takes both kinds of applause. In addition to being a cancer specialist, Joe has just released his third album in aid of Friends of the Cancer Centre. He chatted to David Hennessy.

A cancer specialist by day, Joe O’Sullivan is also a folk-rock singer-songwriter by night and in the future, the Wexford-born singer-songwriter is planning to split his time between medicine and music. Having just released his third album Instead of Many Shades of Blue with all proceeds going to Friends of the Cancer Centre, Joe told us you can’t underestimate the power of music to help people recover from illness.

Joe told The Irish World: “I see it myself coming home from a stressful day over the years, I guess that’s what’s really got me playing music a lot more: Coming home after a long day and going to the guitar, to the piano and it just immediately relaxed me.

“A lot of people are interested in music. Talking to patients, it’s amazing how it can calm them if they are going through a difficult spell or side effects of treatment or whatever it might be. It’s amazing how lying on the bed and listening to something with headphones on really makes a difference and also it’s a language that everybody understands. Everybody gets it and I love that.

“Not everybody is going to like my kind of music but the ones that do, it seems to get them and that’s a fantastic feeling as a performer.

“The idea is to move to a 50/50 career where I am able to spend time recording and maybe touring an album, maybe take three or four months off every couple of years and do all the touring and promotion that’s required.

“I’m gradually moving towards that in my own career. I’ve been through the very busy period, especially globe-trotting, this Covid-19 pandemic has really focused my mind now on travelling less. I’ve been spending half my time on airplanes and that’s going to come to a crashing halt thankfully because I want to dedicate more time to music and also I think when you go through the pandemic lockdown, you realise what is important and to me travelling around the world is no longer the thing I want to do.”

A leading consultant oncologist based at Northern Ireland Cancer Centre, Joe wants more of his future travelling to be music-related.

Having worked so hard and got to where he is, does Joe feel it is now time to do what makes him happy? “That’s exactly it. It’s trying to find new priorities while at the same time there’s a part of me that’s always going to be a doctor and a clinician and I love that, I really do.

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“But I’ve done a lot of the other stuff: The research, the writing and the lecturing, all the rest and I definitely could fill that space with music. Even though it’s very hard to make a living from the music, I’m lucky that with the day job, even with half the day job I’d be comfortably off and I could manage it.”

It would remiss to chat to a leading consultant and not mention the current pandemic.

“I think we’re coming through it,” he comments.

Never have doctors and nurses had so much gratitude coming their way than in the last few weeks and months.

“You see the NHS and it’s such an important institution yet it gets battered, especially by the current government and they’ve had Tory-led governments for the last ten years or so. They really don’t prioritise it and I think what is especially coming through in this is is the importance of the key workers. Not just the consultants, not just the nurses but also the people who make deliveries to the hospital, the care workers, the people who clean the place.

“These are some of the most underpaid, undervalued people and I’m really hoping that coming out the other end of this, people like that will be valued and not just paid a crap wage and having to live a substandard life when really they deserve a lot more. Their role in society is so important. It’s more important than hedge fund mangers in my view.”

Joe is full of praise for the nurses who are often fighting and even having to strike for what they think the deserve and points out they are the ones who are with the Covid-19 patients in the last and worst moments.

“Especially the nurses because not only do they have to have the professional knowledge, they have to know all about the drugs, all about the therapies, they have to actually hold someone’s hand, look into their eyes, be that person who is with them especially in this crisis where many people are suffering and indeed dying alone.

“The nurses have stepped up to the plate big time. In Ireland and the UK I really hope we see a big change in emphasis, respect and characterisation of those kind of people.”

Joe has also worked in medicine over here. After medical schoo, he completed his basic oncology training in Dublin and then moved to Epsom Downs in 2000 and worked at the Royal Merton Hospital in Sutton and also on Fulham Road.

“I was in both those places for about four years and that’s where I really honed my skills on prostate cancer working with a really fantastic team there. Then just over sixteen years ago I was headhunted to go to Belfast to set up the prostate and radiotherapy research programme there. It was a really good move. At that time I was flitting between staying in London, going back to Dublin and hadn’t really thought about Belfast but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and gave me a chance to set up a very unique practice here in Belfast.”

It has been said that when the Covid-19 crisis is in the past, we will have a backlog of cancer patients.

“Cancer got pushed aside for two reasons. One, some of the treatments we do reduce the immune system so things like chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy. We even had to be cautious first of all that somebody really needed treatment because the risk of side effects is higher in Covid-19 time.

“The second thing is that the cancer population tend to be older people and they seem to be both more vulnerable to getting Covid-19 and also to getting serious complications and death from Covid-19 so we had to free up capacity of the health service. Because of that surgery just stopped, many of the normal routine of biopsies and that type of things stopped or were at least naturally delayed.

“We’re going to have a bit of a hump alright. I think that’s going to be particularly important in things like lung cancer and breast cancer where early diagnosis really makes a massive difference. In prostate cancer, which is my field, we have a little bit of leeway. Catching it early is important but not as important probably as lung or breast cancer.”

Joe has been delighted with the response to the album which follows his 2015 debut Take a Deep Breath and 2017’s Another Light.

“It’s been great. It’s been really good. I’m getting a good bit of play on Irish radio now as well so I’m kind of happy about that. It’s definitely making a reasonable impact.

“Going back a good few years, I was always in cover bands and that sort of thing. I always tried to write songs but about six, seven years I started doing it more and maybe spending a bit more time on it and getting a bit better at it.

“I always wanted to record music at some point and then a few tunes came together and then did the first album in 2015. That went down really well. A lot of that music was inspired by working as a cancer doctor and had a lot of close links with patients and patients’ stories and that kind of thing so it went down well.

“Then I did another one then in 2017 called Another Light and that was a bit more personal. I think I was gradually getting better at the job of writing and also performing. This one is my best so far. I’ve spent a bit of time getting better at playing, getting better at singing and hopefully crafting songs a bit better as well.”

How would Joe describe his music? “I guess it’s kind of folk-rock. The people who inspire me would be Bob Dylan, Bono, Christy Moore and then wider afield people like Ron Sexsmith and Tom Waits: That kind of thing, singer-songwriter types with a kind of a rock influence somewhere along the way but probably more folk.

“I don’t like to categorise it but the artist who really influenced me the most was Bob Dylan and then after that U2 and especially Bono, I think his songwriting is totally under-rated. His lyrics are fantastic.

“Dermot Kennedy is a real star. I think he’s got such songwriting ability and he’s a brilliant performer so I’m really looking forward to seeing how his career evolves. I just love Lisa Hannigan’s voice and her really delicate touch. She’s just a fantastic player and singer.

“I think there’s an incredible amount of Irish talent. I guess I just haven’t got time to keep up with all of it but those two would be my highlights of the current crop of Irish writers especially.”

Instead of Many Shades of Blue by Joe O’Sullivan is available to buy online from friendsofthecancercentre.com/ with all proceeds going to Friends of the Cancer Centre.

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