MONROVIA, Calif. — Shortly after his wife died in 2011, Dr. Adam Kendall closed their joint private medical practice and found himself on a train to Canada — a trip arranged by his brother — to try and process his grief and find clarity.
“I was consumed by grief over the tremendous loss of my 15-year loving wife, her intense laughter, and fierce interest in being able to capably heal those who were suffering,” Kendall told NBC News.
An introvert, Kendall initially brought his violin on board the train, hoping to brush up on a few Bach sonatas in solitude, he said. But while on the trip, where he had been seated in a dining car, a group of performers on board asked if he would be interested in playing with them during their encore — a first for Kendall, who wasn't used to playing for strangers.
When he lifted his violin, Kendall said his fellow passengers seemed to connect with the music in a special way, and some even began to share with him their own stories of loss and grief.
Kendall said the conversations he had during that trip reaffirmed his commitment to continue as a physician and also as a classical musician, he said. In addition to working as a board-certified physician in family medicine and palliative care with Davita Medical Group, Kendall now regularly performs live music in public in an effort to help people heal.
“I think that the change I went through in 2011 helped me understand that while we don’t have to necessarily take a medication or be in a sterile room to receive professional counseling, we need something serious to help us through the loss of a spouse or a child or the loss of physical function that a lot of my patients experience,” he said.
'The Heavy Weight of Expectation'
From as early as the age of 5, Kendall was fascinated with classical music. He recalled an early memory of watching a violinist on TV and his mother, noticing her son's fixation on the screen, enrolled him in violin and piano classes.
Born in Sanger, California, to a Japanese-American mother and a white father, and raised in Orange County, the music of Kendall's childhood consisted of Tchaikovsky, Bach, and his dad's Beatles and Beach Boys collections.
When he began college at the University of California, San Diego, in 1997, Kendall studied molecular biology while minoring in violin performance. It was there that he met his wife, Normy Chiou, and the two eloped in 2000.
During his research years at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, Kendall said Chiou, who was studying at Oregon Health Sciences University, struggled with depression and contemplated leaving medical school during her first year.
"Being an Asian immigrant, she carried the heavy weight of expectation to first succeed that many young adults face," Kendall said.
A week after learning about his wife’s mental health challenges, Kendall moved to Oregon to support her and helped her find the courage to seek professional treatment. While in Oregon, he spent a year as part of his USC curriculum doing research training, and also joined the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
Chiou went on to complete her MD at OHSU in 2003, the same year he graduated from USC. They went on to complete their residency together in Modesto, California, before moving to Newport Beach, where they opened a palliative care private medical practice serving patients with serious illnesses at Hoag Hospital.
Kendall notes that there's a tendency to be stoic and closed off when speaking about grief and suffering. The tolerance for emotional grief, he said, is something that may have helped them persevere through tough times.
“It was only until recently that I would hear some aspects of the suffering my grandmother went through,” Kendall said.
That suffering, he added, was an eye-opening tragedy for his entire family: when Kendall was 9, his aunt suffered facial trauma and respiratory failure following a car accident that ultimately took her life. As Kendall prepared for college, his grandmother told him she hoped he would one day be able to prevent suffering in the critical stages of someone's life.
“She could see that the prolonging of life on a machine even for those 48 hours was very harrowing and stressful, and it was a place for me to start to think about how can I make a difference in the field of medicine with the relief of suffering overall," Kendall said.
First Street Performances
After his 2011 trip to Canada, Kendall returned to medicine with a renewed sense of purpose. Working as a physician and helping others become a large part of his healing and identity, he said.
“After having been on that trip and experiencing the exchange amongst strangers that were willing to share and participate in a musical gathering, I had a sense of inspiration to try to provide a service to the community in that way,” he said.
Inspired by his trip, Kendall obtained a performer’s license and began regularly performing at Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. His first performance was New Year's Day 2012, a little over a month after his wife died.
Today, the physician-musician performs every Friday night outside of his apartment complex at the Monrovia Street Fair in Monrovia, California — dressed in a full tuxedo and performing everything from Scott Joplin to film scores to classical concertos. Before each performance, Kendall also introduces his friend's dog, Barney, who sits next to him on the piano bench as he plays.
“I found that he listened to me just as attentively as some of my well-seasoned classical listeners,” Kendall said. “The beauty of his locked-in gaze on my instruments as I played music for him was I think more powerful than the music itself.”
Kendall has met people from all walks of life through his street performances. Many have come up to him after his performances and have shared their most intimate stories.
“I’ve had a gentleman recently imprisoned share that he had just gotten out of prison that week and being able to walk as a free man in his free country and listen to free music was just a beautiful experience — I thought that was brave of him to share that,” Kendall said.
Any of the money Kendall receives while playing, he gives back to charity. Along with his street performances, Kendall plays at charity concerts to benefit local organizations, including Bloom Where Planted and the Foothill Unity Center, and offers piano and violin lessons to children (the fees from those lessons are also directed to a local charity of their choice).
Kendall says there’s a tremendous amount of healing that is occurring through the act of performing or listening to music — and that, to him, is worth playing another note.
“To be able to play the violin or piano for individuals that lack the capacity to speak openly and to have that life with you is an area of healing that we are just beginning to appreciate — how to provide non-verbal healing,” Kendall said. “I feel like in that regards, there is some neurologic feeling that is occurring that we just can’t put a number on or put a measurement on.”