Cellist-Doctor Uses Music to Fight Diseases

PHOTOCourtesy Dr. Eric Roter

Dr. Eric Roter has two personas: an emergency room doctor who tends to cardiac arrests and accident victims and a Juilliard-trained cellist who uses his instrument to help cure the medical conditions he treats.

His usual introduction to patients at Ohio's Kaiser Permanente's Cleveland Heights Medical Center is, "Hi, I'm Dr. Roter, where does it hurt?"

But now, as holiday giving reaches its peak, Roter and his cello are featured in a series of YouTube videos -- "Bach to Health" -- designed to raise funds for some of the toughest diseases, from

VIDEO: Dr. Eric Roter plays the cello to raise awareness about ankylosing spondylitis.Play

lupus to cancer.

Making his debut as a soloist at New York City's Lincoln Center at age 17, Roter abandoned a promising music career to study medicine. While he was heartened by helping others, he also felt a "betrayal for leaving an art that was so near and dear to me."

As a student in New York, he occasionally performed as a street musician and never forgot the charity of passersby who tossed donations in his cello case.

Today, at 46, he has perfected the solo suites by Johannes Sebastian Bach -- "the heart of cello literature" -- and dedicated each of the 36 movements to a national medical charity.

"People trust me with their lives in the ER," said Roter. "Perhaps they would trust me if I taught them a bit about some of the medical conditions I treat. Perhaps I could inspire people to donate to some great health care charities."

His medical colleague at the hospital, Dr. Aaron R. Smith, said Roter likes the flexibility of emergency room shift work so he can pursue his art.

"I can understand it's a little bit of a funny fit, a cellist of his caliber, in an emergency department," he told ABCNews.com. "We're rough and tumble action-oriented, an image very different from what you think of a cellist. He manages to straddle both worlds well."

Each audio-visual performance of the cello solos is set against the backdrop of a scene in New York City, where Roter went to both music and medical school. Each also highlight facts about the disease and provide a link to make a tax-deductible donation.

"I am like a one-man band, beginning to end," Roter said of the video and music production that was two years in the making. "I vowed to myself that I would not make anything public until I was really satisfied that I was doing justice to the music."

Some of the musical and visual pairings are ironic, and some are poignant.

The video for the American Liver Foundation, Suite No. 3: "Bouree 1 & 2," addresses digestion disorders and takes place outside the food market Zabar's.

Suite No. 5: "Sarabande," which Roter first heard while working in the World Trade Center as a pre-med student, was dedicated to his mother-in-law, who died of pulmonary hypertension.

One of Bach's most difficult movements -- "Prelude" to Suite No. 6 -- was dedicated to Prevent Blindness America and is played outside Carnegie Hall.

As for the fatal Huntington's disease -- he deliberately chose Suite No. 4, "Allemande," -- a "bright major key."

"There are some really sad movements and I didn't want to use tragic music for that -- a down piece in a minor key," he said.

So far, perhaps because it is the first video, Suite No. 1: "Prelude," dedicated to the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis, leads for most viewed.

Music is 'Healing Force' in Health

"He sees music as a healing force in wellness," said Dr. Ronald Copeland, executive director for the Ohio Permanente Medical Group, who hopes to help Roter leverage his project through the Kaiser Permanente network.

Roter, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., started the cello in third grade because "it was the largest instrument offered."

He was later accepted to Juilliard's pre-college division, winning their cello competition and playing Lalo's Cello Concerto solo at Lincoln Center.

Later, as a student at Manhattan School of Music, he was twice selected as only one of 12 cellists around the world to perform the master classes of the prestigious Piatigorsky Seminar in Los Angeles.

"After music school I was in competitions, but one day I thought to myself, even if I won the top prize, and even if I succeed at this, so what?" said Roter.

He thought back to high school, when he had enjoyed the sciences and decided to go back to become a doctor.

"Maybe it's time to go down another fork -- there was so much to learn and I thought there was more to me," he said. "I wanted to do something to help people."

After doing his pre-med work at New York City's Hunter College, he got his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland, Ohio.

"During medical school I barely practiced, and during my emergency medicine residency I didn't play at all," he said. "I remember listening to the radio on the way back from a tough shift and hearing some music which I had played only a few years before.

"I couldn't imagine that I had ever played such difficult music and I really wondered if I could still consider myself a musician even though I had nothing to show for it!"

That was, until he created "Bach to Health," carefully choosing high-profile charities -- from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to fight Parkinson's disease to the AIDS Research Alliance -- those with national visibility and an effective track record.

Though he hopes to boost fundraising, Roter also seeks to raise awareness about lesser known diseases that can have devastating effects.

One, ankylosing spondylitis, is a form of arthritis of the spine that usually strikes between the ages of 17 and 35, when patients are "young, bullet-proof and 20-feet tall," according to Laurie Savage, executive director of the Spondylitis Association of America. (SAA)

The disease -- often called "bamboo spine" for the way in which it can fuse the back bones -- is the most overlooked cause of persistent back pain in young adults and can also lead to damage in the eyes, heart and lungs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ankylosing spondlylitis and its related diseases can affect up to 2.4 million Americans, more than multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and Lou Gehrig's disease combined.

Roter's wife is a rheumatologist and suggested her husband consider SAA, her "favorite" charity, and for three years running an Oprah's "high marks" pick in the field of arthritis.

When learning Roter had dedicated Suite No. 4: "Sarabande," Savage, a piano player, said the news was "music to my ears."

SAA will do a cover story on Roter in the next issue of their magazine and provide links through their social networking sites.

The impact, according to Savage, will be enormous.

"Our biggest struggle is to create awareness for the disease, so people who have persistent back pain can be aware of this condition, especially young people," said Savage.

Because most of the damage caused by ankylosing spondylitis occurs in the first 10 years, early diagnosis means early treatment to improve "quality of life."

As a doctor, Roter understands the power of music to heal.

As an artist, he appreciates the genius of Bach and his suites for cello -- "among the most challenging and sublime music ever written."

"They are what Shakespeare's sonnets are to English," he said. "Once you read them and reread them and finally 'get it,' they stay with you for the rest of your life and they always have new meaning every time they are read," he said. "I'm hoping the music and the messages embedded in the videos will also stay with people for the rest of their lives."

But Roter, whose initials are "ER," won't be giving up medicine any time soon.

"There is something about emergency medicine that syncs with my lifestyle," said Roter. "It's fast-paced and you see all types -- a broad spectrum of society. And there's no greater reward than doing something to save a life."