Dr. Billy Cohn is running late to our interview. He texts: "I'm standing by for a LASER lead extraction. They need me another 20 minutes."
It may seem like a cliché, but Cohn, who makes his DJ debut Friday night at Leon's Lounge's "Celebrity DJ" series, is something of a renaissance man: Heart surgeon, inventor and professional trombonist currently playing with local Latino rockers Chango Man and popular '70s cover band Disco Expressions.
Cohn recently made big news and medical history when he and Texas Heart Institute elder statesman Dr. Bud Frazier ("my mentor," says Cohn) successfully implanted a continuous-flow turbine mechanical heart in a terminally ill patient in March.
Given the man's condition, the medical team really didn't know what results to expect, but they were ecstatic when after a few days the patient came out of his coma. Lucid and alert, he was able to spend a few precious final days with family members. Although the patient's rare disease was incurable, the device extended the man's life by several months, and the worldwide medical community took notice.
Cohn rushes in 45 minutes late, still in pale blue St. Luke's scrubs.
"I'm sorry, they've been delaying this since 3:30," he says. "They'll call me if I need to run back over there."
Over the next hour, Cohn unveils a diverse and interesting life. A member of the Memorial High School marching band, he initially intended to make music his career, enrolling in the music school at Oberlin College in Ohio.
"My ambition was to be a rock star," Cohn declares with a wry, look-at-me-now smile.
"I played trombone, but I also taught myself guitar and eventually bass," he recalls. "Punk was what my friends and I were into, and it was like everybody in music school had a band. We used to have these crazy parties that would last all weekend with a bunch of bands playing at someone's house."
"But even as a kid I was always fascinated by all the amazing developments that were going on in the Houston medical community. My mom used to cut out articles and put them by my cereal bowl so I would read them while I had breakfast."
He laughs: "I guess it must've soaked in."
Somewhere in college, Cohn realized that maybe music wasn't going to be a financially viable career choice.
"I wouldn't say I grew up, but I suddenly at some point right in there just got much more serious about what am I really going to do," says Cohn, who is now married with five children between ages 11 and 19. "And then I got into medical school."
"The funny thing is all my buddies in the program thought I'd end up being a plastic surgeon," he continues. "No one believed me when I'd say that I was going to try for the heart surgeon program. But I finally got accepted into a group of 35 students at Baylor College of Medicine."
Dr. Denton Cooley would eventually winnow that group of 35 until only seven emerged from the program as chiefs. Cohn was one of the seven, and he became the last chief resident for renowned heart surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey.
"Believe me, I had people all along who didn't believe I would ever go for it, much less get there," Cohn says.
After his Baylor residency, Cohn moved north to Boston to join the faculty of Harvard Medical School, where he rose to Adjunct Professor of Surgery. He wound up staying for 12 years, but even before he left, Cohn had immersed himself in the local music scene.
"I was always into art and I got a summer job working at a T-shirt shop where I'd help with layouts and printing," he recalls. "And that's how I met Little Screamin' Kenny."
Kenny, local musical legend and Rockin' Robin guitar salesman, was then working with the band Dr. Rockitt, who happened to be looking for a horn section. Upon learning that Cohn played trombone, Kenny asked if Cohn could put something together. Through that brief exposure to the local scene, Cohn came to the notice of Ezra Charles.
"Ezra was in his heyday, playing everywhere, so I was thrilled to join his band," says Cohn. "He's always had good bands, but I think that group of people may be the best combo he ever put together. I played about 90 gigs with Ezra, and it was just smoking hot. Maybe the most fun I ever had in music."
These days, when he's not in the surgical theater, attending board meetings or working in the Texas Heart Institute laboratory — where he, Frazier and Cooley are currently studying a yearling calf with one of the mechanical hearts walking on a treadmill — Cohn plays with Latino rockers and Continental Club regulars Chango Man. He also works with cover band Disco Expressions and put together a one-off horn section for a Gourds gig a couple of years back at Warehouse Live.
"If you look at my office, you'll see that it's a lot like my life — all over the place," grins Cohn. "I love my medical work, but a lot of that takes place in a high-stress environment, so playing music helps take the edge off and put some fun into the equation."
Surprisingly, although he holds 60 patents, Cohn is not an engineer.
"I've built stuff all my life," he explains. "I love surgery, I love being in the operating room and helping people, but these days what really gets me off is going out to my little workshop behind my house and tinkering with ideas."
While Cohn outsourced the miniature turbines that form the moving parts of that mechanical heart, he actually experimented with various compounds in his workshop to come up with the flexible elastic components that allow the device to be stitched to the arteries.
"It's a little crazy, but I buy a lot of stuff at Home Depot for my experiments," he laughs. "And I just get out there at night and try to think my way through what a particular invention needs."
His most recent invention is called a lariat. Cohn whips out his iPhone and starts a video showing the procedure, which consists of the surgeon threading two magnets on the end of tiny tubes up through an artery to the heart, somewhat similar to an angioplasty procedure.
The video, done as a live X-ray, is fascinating as the two magnets eventually meet and lock onto each other. A miniature balloon device is then threaded up the tube, and the physician manipulates a loop of metal thread around a fibrillating heart cavity.
"The danger of atrial fibrillation is that tiny blood clots form because the blood never moves and leaves the chamber like it would if the heart was functioning correctly," Cohn explains. "So if the chamber should suddenly stop fibrillating and pump blood, which is a common occurrence in fibrillation cases, chances are very high that one of those clots will travel up to the brain and cause a stroke."
This new lariat device and procedure virtually eliminates the chances of stroke in atrial fibrillation patients. With literally millions of fibrillation cases worldwide, Cohn sees a bright future for the procedure.
"The cost of caring for a stroke patient is extremely high," he says. "This device and procedure costs about $15,000 dollars, but that's just a drop in the bucket cost-wise versus what the insurance companies or any individual would have to pay for care after a stroke, not to even mention the damage to the quality of a stroke victim's life and to the lives of the family members who usually have to take on the care burden for a stroke victim."
Cohn and several associates recently returned from Germany, where they performed a lariat procedure as 600 physicians from all across Europe watched.
"I love what I do, but these days what really gets me off is inventing something that is truly useful and then finding the venture capital to make it happen," he says.
Indeed, it took some intricate scheduling to finally get Cohn to the Leon's turntables.
"They've invited me a couple of times and I just couldn't make it fit," he says. "When they approached me about August 26, I looked at my calendar and said yeah, let's do it. Then about a week ago I got a memo from a team of doctors I'm working with on building a hospital in China that we were flying out to Shanghai on the 26th.
"But I didn't want to cancel again or get a substitute, so I managed to move things around to fly out the day after."
Cohn obviously loves the spotlight of performance, whether he's in the operating room or on a stage. But the genial heart surgeon actually seems to have a bit of trepidation about his disc-jockeying debut.
"I'm such a geek about that kind of stuff," he laughs. "I'll probably just play Mott the Hoople's 'All The Young Dudes' over and over."
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