Mending Hearts & Making Music: Meet Cowboy Cardiologist Cleve Francis

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Country singer & cardiologist Cleve Francis; Photo Courtesy of Cleve Francis Country singer & cardiologist Cleve Francis; Photo Courtesy of Cleve Francis

Whether performing in the operating room or on stage at the Vietnam Memorial, for over 30 years cardiologist and country artist Cleve Francis has touched the hearts of both patients and music lovers across the country.

Fascinated by music from a young age, Francis got his first guitar from his mom under one condition that he studied hard and always did his homework. As his musical skills developed, Francis studied his way out of an impoverished upbringing in Jennings, La., a few hours drive west of New Orleans, and eventually into medical school.

He first went to Southern University, and then William & Mary for his Master's, before attending the Medical College of Virginia, which later merged into what is now Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1978, Francis set up a cardiology practice in Alexandria, Va.

Soon after, Francis spent significant time following his musical dream. One of the few African-Americans in the country genre, Francis released a string of albums in the '80s and '90s, including the 1992 Billboard-charting Tourist in Paradise. Much of his music remains relevant today.

In some ways Francis's musical creations comprise a U.S. civil rights timeline, addressing such topics as the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the plight of Vietnam War veterans and the hysteria of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Late in that decade, at a time of even greater paranoia than recent Ebola fears, Francis wrote We re All in This Together to educate and raise awareness to the reality of AIDS.

"People didn't know how it happened, where this disease came from, how it was transmitted, whether you could walk in a room with somebody [and contract it]," Francis said this week when reached by phone. "We were using (the song) as a tool. We got people singing about it, so that it means something to them and they got the message."

Many health organizations still use Francis's song to this day including the American Red Cross, the Pan American Organization and the World Health Organization. And at a time when AIDS causes Tanzanian presidents to ban miniskirts, Francis's message continues to resonate today. But not all news is bad news for people with the disease.

This month, the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation updated its list of heart transplant candidates to include those infected with HIV/AIDS. Francis credits greater awareness for such progress.

"If our education system works, we can get to people before they have (heart) damage," Francis says. "I'm astounded by the fact that people are having heart attacks at a decreased rate, and we can now prevent people from having them."

In a May 2012 study, University of California San Francisco researchers retroactively observed 2,860 HIV patients from April 2000 to August 2009. During this period, they found that 15 percent of these patients deaths were cardiac-related. And 86 percent of those cardiac-related deaths were sudden, leading the researchers to conclude that HIV/AIDS patients suffer sudden cardiac death at four times the rate of the general population.

Now that HIV-infected individuals are living longer with the benefits of antiretroviral therapy, non-AIDS conditions are becoming increasingly important, says Priscilla Hsue, MD, director of the HIV Cardiology Clinic at the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, and at the top of this list is cardiovascular disease.

Francis, now the president of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates and Mount Vernon Hospital's Medial Staff in Alexandria, Va., has seen the cardiovascular effects of AIDS firsthand.

"I've treated patients with heart problems associated with AIDS," Francis says. "When I started practicing, all doctors could do was watch somebody have a heart attack, and a lot of them died. But now people get to the hospital pretty early, we can go to the lab and put in a stent to prevent the heart attacks."

Today, Francis focuses most of his attention on his cardiology practice. Yet he continues to release new music and perform live showcasing his 2008 album You've Got Me Now. His annual performance at the Washington-area Birchmere Music Hall takes place in March.