Have you heard the new diabetes song called Needle Free?
Just released in July, it’s all about how our technology and treatment has come to a point where we're seemingly just inches from being "needle free"... and it's only a matter of time before we get there.
The vocal duo at work here are two very musically-talented type 1 singers: Adam Lasher, nephew of classic rock legend Carlos Santana (whom we interviewed in January during his time on American Idol), and country music star Amanda Jo in Nashville, TN.
It's a good listen, IMHO, thanks to Adam and Amanda's incredible voices and the fact it has some well-written lyrics about life with diabetes. But the story behind this tune is even better, as it’s one of the many tunes that a doctor and diabetes advocate in south Florida has written in the past dozen years.
Dr. Richard "Mack" Harrell is a longtime endocrinologist who specializes in thyroid imaging. He led the American Association of Clinical Endos (AACE) up until May 1 and now serves as immediate past president.
Aside from his medical career, “Dr. Mack” has another big passion in life: songwriting and producing country music, some even at diabetes conferences and events – all of which fits into his long-rooted dream of someday getting a record deal in Nashville. No kidding.
We connected with Dr. Mack recently to talk music, medicine, and what he's been up to since handing the AACE presidency over to Dr. George Grunberger from Michigan. It's great to hear him tell the story of how the Needle Free song came together, how it aims to raise awareness and increase diabetes advocacy efforts, and in general how he sees an important connection between medicine and music.
From Music to Medical School
Before we can tell the story of Needle Free, we have to begin with how Dr. Mack got his start in music. Born and raised in Nashville, you can probably guess some of it.
His story begins when his first grade teacher -- who happened to have performed with the National Symphony Orchestra -- thought he had "musicial proclivity" and insisted Dr. Mack's mom allow her to drive him home in her Volkswagon Beetle after school for piano lessons. With that, at age 6, music became a big part of Dr. Mack's life. Those lessons continued and evolved into violin, and he eventually studied at Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt in Nashville and then North Carolina for piano composition courses, before he set his sights on medical school.
"You just don't have the time during medical school to think about anything else, and while I never lost the interest, it wasn't until my mid to late 40s when my kids were going off to college that I got back into music... and it was because of a patient," Dr. Mack recalls.
By then, Dr. Mack had moved to south Florida and specialized in thyroid endocrinology. A patient who happened to have diabetes came into his office because of advanced colon cancer, and it turned out that man, Lynn Winslow, was an accomplished gospel bass singer. They talked and agreed to write and perform a song together, called I Want To Sing Bass. Before he died, Lynn had 500 CDs produced and had the song played at his own funeral.
Now, Dr. Mack sees this as his best song to date, although he's done well over 100 in the past 13 years. You can hear his music and learn more about his musical side at MackHarrell.com.
He travels to Nashville several times a year -- aside from working in his home studio, writing and cutting tracks before cleaning them up for studio production. Mostly, he works with the same close group of singers and music pros whom he says "never quite made it to the A-List, but were on the B-List for a long time."
Dr Mack tells us, "I do have serious aspirations to get my music cut in Nashville, and I've been trying for 10+ years now. The journey is still a lot of fun, and it's worth every bit."
The Sound of Endocrinology
Since coming back to music, Dr. Mack says he's done a few diabetes or endo-specific songs -- not only this recent Needle Free, but one called "Endocrinology" that has a catchy chorus and another that modified the lyrics of the "Superhero" song by The Script to run as "Super Docs."
He's brought those talents to the diabetes world, convening a band endo musicians called "The Sugars" who've performed at AACE meetings and board meetings for the past several years. They include Dr. Mack on guitar and piano, Dr. Kathleen Figaro from Iowa as lead vocals, Dr. Tim Bailey from California on fiddle, and the AACE's shipping coordinator Ryan Neill for male vocals.
Photo: Jean Whiteside Photography
"There are a lot of musical endos, amazingly," Dr. Mack says, admitting he doesn't exactly know the reason for that. "It's not unusual to see that. Endocrinology is very intellectually demanding speciality in medicine, and it's all about the rhythms of the human body. So maybe it's a matter of what kind of rhythm you're thinking about. I work all day imaging people with sound, above the range of hearing, and then I go home and play around with sound in the range. So, it's all about the sound, music and rhythms of the body and mind."
.ost recently, his group performed at the AACE annual meeting in May. And right after that musical number in front of so many endos, Dr. Claresa Levetan who runs Perle Biosciences and is pushing for "insulin independence" in her research, approached Dr. Mack and said, "You have to do a song for type 1 diabetes!"
The stage was set...
"Needle Free" for Advocacy
Once he returned home in early June, Dr. Mack says he started putting the song Needle Free together and by mid-month was in the studio recording it. Dr. Levetan made the connections with Adam and Amanda as vocalists, and after a few online song-writing tweak sessions, they were ready to go for a July release.
Here is the group, including Dr. Mack and Dr. Levetan as well as Adam, Amanda and one of the patient-inspirations for Dr. Levetan in doing her work:
This song is the first initiative of the newly-created American College of Endocrinology Foundation (ACEF), which falls under the umbrella of the AACE as a fundraising and advocacy arm for the profession. (See our coverage on the new ACEF org from May.)
"This is meant to be an open, inclusive way to cover what we're about for everyone with diabetes. It's a statement, that we've had this disease with a partial cure of insulin since 1921, but haven't really changed how we deliver insulin. We think it's about time."
Thinking Outside the Box
Dr. Mack says that AACE leadership needs to be thinking outside the box in how it prepares doctors for what's ahead in patient care. In the past, doctors have relied on Pharma to provide training and education, but that's becoming less common and more people are leery of turning to the drug vendors for physician education. But endos and educators just don't have the ability to pay for additional training on new drugs and treatments on their own, so they're simply not getting as much. That's bad for people with diabetes.
That is in part the purpose of this Needle Free song, to open up the conversation and bring more awareness to these issues and what the AACE and ACEF are all about, Dr. Mack says.
"My concern, as past president of AACE, is that the workforce has got to be ready -- or patients will suffer because the doctors don't have the expertise and Continuing Medical Education (CME) needed for these advancements," he says. "It's getting harder to deliver this education, and if (some entities) are turned away from funding this, then we have to find a new way to fund the doctors' education."
While the song was inspired by Dr. Levetan and her research on eventually achieving insulin independence, Dr. Mack says it really touches on everything from new insulin pens, better treatments and medications, and next-gen tech like the Bionic Pancreas that will all lead to more convenience and bring us closer to being "needle free" until a cure is discovered.
Honestly, we found the song is pretty sweet to listen to, and it's refreshing to see an established medical org like AACE taking this fun approach to advocating for what's needed to optimize diabetes patient care.
With Dr. Mack's history and love for music, it was a pairing just waiting to happen!
"Thinking of music as separate from the healing process -- that’s very American. The rest of the world has always thought of it in the same breath," Dr. Mack says, noting that he's written on the topic of music for your health. "Music is a way to get around so many of these medical issues we face. On that same note, maybe we can use it more to get around these funding and advocacy hurdles we're seeing."