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Joan Krajca-Radcliffe, MD, performs with the Galveston Symphony Orchestra.
Courtesy of Tim Sites

AAOS Now

Published 7/1/2009
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Jennie McKee

From the meniscus to Mozart

Joan Krajca-Radcliffe, MD, sets her orthopaedic career to music

Repairing a torn meniscus in the operating room comes just as naturally to Joan Krajca-Radcliffe, MD, as bowing and plucking a violin during a symphony concert. She finds many parallels between performing surgery and playing the works of composers such as Mozart, Bach, and Corelli.

“A musician must constantly assess rhythms, key changes, and timing,” she notes. “The musicians and conductor have to perform their roles and put it all together to make a performance work, which is a lot like the teamwork that’s required in the operating room.”

Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe has played in many memorable concerts, including performances at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall and in Galveston, Texas, just after Hurricane Ike devastated the island.

Getting to Carnegie Hall
Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe has always been very musically inclined. She began learning the violin when she was 8 years old, and she also plays guitar.

“During college and graduate school, I played folk guitar and wrote music, some of which was published,” she says. “I also wrote a folk mass—an eight-piece composition to be performed by a small chorale with musical accompaniment.”

While a student at Cornell University, she experienced the ultimate dream of many classical musicians.

“I was lucky enough to perform at Carnegie Hall as a violinist in the Cornell Symphony Orchestra,” she remembers. “We played under the direction of conductor and composer Karel Husa, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1969.”

She says it was thrilling to perform at a venue that has showcased some of the world’s best musicians.

“Being on stage as one of the members of the orchestra was so exciting,” she remembers, with a smile. “It was unbelievable to look out at the audience and know that I was playing at Carnegie Hall, which has so much history. We also performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which was thrilling.”

Performing with the GSO
Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe took time off from the violin to focus on graduate school, medical school, residency, and fellowship training. Nearly 25 years after playing at Carnegie Hall, while living and practicing in Texas she picked up the instrument again for an informal performance at a local hospital.

“I joined a group of physicians and hospital staff who performed Christmas carols for patients at the Mainland Medical Center in Texas City, Texas,” she says. “It was so much fun that it piqued my interest in playing again.”

Soon thereafter, Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe joined the Galveston Symphony Orchestra (GSO). She attended rehearsals regularly for 4 years before moving to Morris, Minnesota, to start an orthopaedic program at Stevens Community Medical Center.

“Luckily, the GSO is very flexible regarding attendance at rehearsals,” she notes. “When I was in Minnesota, our maestro mailed me the music so that I could learn it.

“As a long-distance runner,” she continues, “I could listen to the music on my MP-3 player during long training runs and then play along to a CD at home. I flew in for the dress rehearsals and concerts, and then flew back to Minnesota.”

Even though Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe has moved back to Texas, she still learns music by listening to recordings. She also attends one 3-hour rehearsal each week, as well as three or four rehearsals for each concert in the season. She has been part of many remarkable GSO performances, the most poignant of which occurred in November 2008. Just two months earlier, Hurricane Ike had flooded and destroyed much of the island of Galveston, Texas.

“No one was allowed on the island for about three weeks, and the Grand 1894 Opera House, where we perform, had taken on 8 feet to 12 feet of water,” she remembers.

Because the opera house was still undergoing repairs, the GSO performed in a ballroom of a Galveston hotel. The orchestra’s performance was the first scheduled event of any kind on the island after the hurricane.

“Our conductor felt it was extremely important to play at a venue on the island,” she says.

The audience members, many of whom had lost their homes and businesses in the disaster, responded to the music with a standing ovation.

“Playing a concert is always emotional, but this one was particularly uplifting,” she recalls. “Performers and citizens had tears in their eyes because everyone felt the concert affirmed that Galveston would survive.”

‘A life outside of medicine’

According to Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe, music is a natural interest for orthopaedists.

“Many physicians and surgeons are very creative and are very talented musically and artistically—and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” she says. “The manual dexterity and mental acuity needed in orthopaedic surgery complement the skills needed to perform music.”

One of the benefits Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe derives from learning new music is the opportunity to focus her energies inward.

“In the clinic and the hospital, I’m always dealing with people,” she says. “When I listen to music and practice playing my part, it gives me time to myself when I can block everything else out.”

She also enjoys her relationships with the other members of the orchestra.

“There’s a real sense of camaraderie as we create something,” she says of her fellow musicians. “We all value the time we spend with each other.”

Despite her busy schedule, Dr. Krajca-Radcliffe notes that it’s important for orthopaedists to take time out for a wide range of pursuits.

“It’s so necessary to have an identity and life outside of medicine,” she says.

Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org