Hui Puts Heart into Work as a Surgeon, Violinist

Dawn Hui, M.D., is passionate about working with her hands – as a SLUCare cardiac surgeon at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and as a violinist with the St. Louis SymphonyCares Heart Quartet.

The string quartet, which uses music to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease, will perform a free concert from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, in the multi-purpose room of the SLU Allied Health Building as part of SLU’s Music & Medicine series. Reservations, which are required by Feb. 23, may be made through this link.

February is a busy month for Xiaoxiao Qiang, left, Xi Zhang, Anne Fagerburg and Dawn Hui, M.D., as members of the St. Louis SymphonyCares Heart Quartet the

February is a busy month for Xiaoxiao Qiang, Xi Zhang, Anne Fagerburg and Dawn Hui, M.D., who play stringed instruments.

A graduate of The Juilliard School prior to her medical training, Hui joins three St. Louis Symphony musicians for the evening that highlights the works of Haydn, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and other composers who had heart ailments. The quartet will play a set of spirituals arranged by a St. Louis-based composer and performed by guest vocalist Brian Owens, who talks about the effect heart disease has had on his family.

“Our mission is to use music to educate all people, and women in particular, about heart health. The pieces were selected for their ability to illustrate aspects of cardiovascular diseases. For instance, both Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, who was also a composer, died at a young age of stroke. We play a fast movement by Mendelssohn to introduce the acronym FAST (Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services), which is used to recognize the warning signs of a stroke,” Hui said. 

“There is a theory that Beethoven had cardiac arrhythmias based on the way his music was written. We also play a quartet movement that paints a sonic picture of atrial fibrillation.”

 Shortly after Hui arrived at Saint Louis University School of Medicine as an assistant professor of cardiovascular surgery, she became one of the founding members of the SymphonyCares Heart Quartet. Other musicians are Xiaoxiao Qiang, violinist; Xi Zhang, violist; and Anne Fagerburg, cellist.

 “It has been a tremendous privilege for me to perform with these amazing musicians. We generally perform in the month of February to raise awareness, particularly of cardiovascular disease in women. Each year we rehearse three or four times before the run of the program. February is indeed very busy for me,” Hui said. 

There is an element of art in cardiac surgery – not all cardiac problems have only one solution or one way to fix the problem."

SLUCare cardiac surgeon Dawn Hui, M.D.

The cardiothoracic surgeon took a different path than most of her peers to pursue her ultimate career. While she’s always loved both music and science, she chose to study violin at the world-class Juilliard instead of the tradition pre-medical curriculum to see if music was the right profession for her. After a year playing for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, she decided it was not. 

“While I still love playing the violin, the practice of medicine and in particular, heart surgery, suits my personality.  Most of all, I really enjoy meeting and getting to know my patients. This is very different from classical music, where the stage creates a physical separation between musicians and their audience,” Hui said. 

“I love the challenges of complex cardiovascular problems and the continual learning and self-improvement in heart surgery.  At the same time, there is an element of art in cardiac surgery – not all cardiac problems have only one solution or one way to fix the problem. Figuring out what course of treatment is best is an individualized process.”