By Deborah Manog, UH Student Journalist
For someone who never thought he would be a doctor and considers himself a “late bloomer” in music, second-year medical student Charles Peebles seems to be perpetuating his familyʻs history in medicine and musical ability. His grandfather and great-grandfather were doctors, his great-grandmother was a concert-pianist from Austria, his grandfather was a jazz trumpet player and his own father is a general surgeon in Kona who used to be in a blues and rock band.
Following in his familyʻs footsteps was not pre-planned, but he believes it was his longing for music that sparked his initial interest in the medical field. “We play music to heal people,” is something a former college professor used to say. After graduating from the University of California Santa Cruz with a Bachelorʻs degree in Legal Studies and a Minor in Japanese and running a computer business out of his house for two years, he realized that he missed music. He began practicing for six hours a day, eventually obtaining his Masterʻs degree in Music (saxophone at piano) at the University of North Texas.
He returned to Hawai`i Island as a professional jazz saxophone player and a music teacher. One day Peebles returned home after playing a gig and thought to himself, “I want to apply for medical school.”
Charles and I got the chance to chat over a cup of coffee at Cafe Waiola at The Curb, which was named by him through the “Name our Cafe” contest held at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) last month.
Charles, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
Charles: My mom and dad are from LA. Until I was a year and a half old, we lived in LA. My folks had a truck at the time. My dad inadvertently cut someone off in traffic and the guy waved a knife at my parents with me in the car and my mom looked at my dad and said “we gotta leave.” Not that I donʻt love Los Angeles but in that moment she wanted to go and they came to the Big Island to check it out but just kind of fell in love with it and we ended up moving there.
JABSOM Enquirer: How was it like growing up in Kona?
Charles: It was great. Konaʻs a lot different from when I grew up there, itʻs a lot more developed. At first there were some cultural differences when I was in elementary school, things like speaking pidgin. I remember not understanding it too well. Ultimately by high school I really loved everything about Kona. I went to the mainland for undergrad and I missed home a lot, thereʻs no place like it. Iʻll just be at the store and total strangers will ask about your family. Thereʻs a certain closeness in Hawai`i that I havenʻt seen duplicated elsewhere. Not that I donʻt like other places but thereʻs something special about this place.
JABSOM Enquirer: Thatʻs true, in fact right when we met you had me talking your ear off about my grandfather. So are you an only child?
Charles: I have a brother, heʻs two years younger than me. He lives near Los Angeles and does recording engineering, heʻs a drummer. My wife Melina and I were married just after high school and she’s been there for the whole adventure! She’s a math teacher at Moanalua Middle School. In fact, one of my classmate’s younger siblings is a student of hers.
JABSOM Enquirer: So youʻre a professional jazz saxophone player and pianist? Were you one of those music prodigies growing up?
Charles: You know, I wasnʻt. I had band, I had a great teacher, Mr. Suzuki, whoʻs now principal at Konawaena High School. I went to a great public high school in Hawai`i but I think I was an average music student. I actually quit between 17 and 22 years old. I didnʻt seriously start playing till I was an adult. But Iʻve had some students who were prodigies for sure. Iʻm really proud of my former students. I really like the teaching aspects of music and I think that translates to medicine too. I think patients ask you whatʻs happening with their condition and youʻre kind of seen as an educator.
JABSOM Enquirer: Youʻre an MS-2, do you still have time to play music?
Charles: Itʻs the one thing that I havenʻt had much time to do. Thereʻs a few people in my class that are musicians. My classmate January Andaya, sheʻs a classical piano player. We had a really fun concert (alumni reunion summer 2013) out here with the faculty and alumni. Whenever I get an opportunity like that I go for it but I canʻt claim that I still practice six hours a day.
JABSOM Enquirer: I think itʻs so cool that you never planned to become a professional musician or to go to med school but you actually have a family background in both music and medicine.
Charles: Yeah, I donʻt want to say you have to have a family line to do something but it is kind of interesting to think about.
JABSOM Enquirer: What interests you as a medical student? Surgery?
Charles: Yes, partly because my dad did it. I worked for my dad a few years in his office, Iʻve seen some surgeries. But itʻs not the only thing Iʻm interested in, second-year students are being exposed to all different kinds of things.
JABSOM Enquirer: Okay so whatʻs reaching out to you right now?
Charles: Surgery. Haha. I mean to say, we have these rotations and I want to keep my options open. Surgeryʻs really cool in that you get to see your hypothesis tested out immediately. Right now I think I would like to do general surgery. But itʻs so hard to know where Iʻll end up right now.
JABSOM Enquirer: What do you like about being here at JABSOM?
Charles: My classmates are wonderful. In terms of studying I was kind of a loner who would lock myself away to study. Here, everyone needs to rely on each other. Thereʻs too much info for any one person to handle by themselves. A valuable experience is that Iʻve learned to work in a community-minded way. No oneʻs gunning for each other. Everyone wants to see everyone else do well, thatʻs just it. They just want the best for each other. But talk to me in a few years and see if thatʻs still the case. Haha, no Iʻm just kidding.
JABSOM Enquirer: Do you have any other hobbies?
Charles: I love foreign languages, I even taught myself French on Skype. I learned French really fast that way. I got to go to France and meet this person and his wife. It was incredible, I never would have gotten to do that if it hadnʻt been for wanting to learn another language. Iʻve also studied Japanese since age 13 and taught elementary Japanese to high school students. I think kanji is beautiful. And it helps with patient populations here, I think it can help put people at ease if someone speaks a little bit of your language especially if english isnʻt your first language. I also swim and coached swimming at Konawaena High School. I also have been thinking a lot lately about the homeless population in Hawai`i. Thereʻs a variety of reasons for why people become homeless and I feel for all of them. I donʻt know what the solution is but I hope to be a part of it.
JABSOM Enquirer: Do you see yourself playing music and practicing medicine in the future?
Charles: Iʻve thought about music therapy, otology or laryngology. I think thereʻs a lot uncomfortable stuff we have to do in medicine, all for the good of the patient. Music might have a role in helping to put peopleʻs minds at ease. Someone close to me had a spinal injury and couldnʻt use their hands very well. One of the ways they rehabilitated was by practicing the piano. I do think music can be a way to motivate some people and in the personal way I witnessed it, it was a transformation from very little function in the hands to 100 percent.
Iʻm desperately looking for a way to integrate music with being a doctor. Maybe during breaks Iʻll be playing sax in the waiting room. I hope I donʻt drive anyone away by doing that.
JABSOM Enquirer: Hey just throw in a dance floor and Iʻm there! Thank you again Charles for taking time to share some of your life with me and the rest of the JABSOM community.
Note: The original JABSOM Enquirer started this series of student profiles to reveal the incredible diversity within our University of Hawai`i medical students. The JABSOM Office of Communications wants to thank our mystery columnist and continue the work started by the original JABSOM Enquirer by publishing more blog posts like this where you can “meet the future MDs.” Students, let us know what you are up to!