Alumnus Profile: Harry C. Knipp, 76

Harry C. Knipp, '76

 

Changing Beats

Stephen A. Valenti, ’78, is a master at the art of transformation.

One minute he is neatly dressed in slacks, shirt, tie and white medical jacket talking in a quiet but reassuring voice to a patient. The next, he is on stage before scores of people, dressed in blue medical scrubs, a red punk rock wig, while snapping karate kicks and playing a Rolling Stones hit Start Me Up on a bright red guitar.

By day, Valenti is a clinical cardiologist, serious about his work. By night, generally once a year, he transforms himself into the lead guitarist of Stevie V. and The Heart Attackers, a 13 member band made up mostly of physicians and medical professionals. The Heart Attackers play everything from Robert Palmer to Patsy Kline to Gershwin. “It is like living another life,” says Valenti, 55. “It is a transformation, but it is a natural part of my personality.”

For Valenti, music and medicine are an integral part of his personality. Both allow him to give back to society. Music, he says, helps him connect with people and the outside world. “I love seeing people enjoy themselves,” Valenti says. “I love to smile at the audience and see people having a great time. Music has been a way to bring people together.”

But his true passion is caring for people who have problems with their heart. “To me, the practice of medicine is a very serious commitment and lifestyle,” says Valenti, who is a member of HPV Heart P.A., a bustling private clinical cardiology practice in Columbia, Md. “I try to make sure that nothing interferes with my patient focus. I am very careful not to have too many extra curriculars to make sure patients get the care they need.” His commitment to patients landed him on the cover of Baltimore Magazine in 1999, as one of Balti-more’s top 15 cardiologists, an honor that he says was a surprise.

Valenti spends his days on hospital rounds, conducting stress tests, cardiovascular screenings, cardiac catheterizations, angioplasties in addition to patient follow ups and paperwork. At times he puts in up to 100 hours in a week. “There is no time for lunch,” he says.

He often starts work between 5:00–6:00 a.m., and doesn’t arrive home until late in the evening. When he is on call over a weekend he sleeps on the couch in his office because the 40 minute drive from his home in Annapolis to Columbia would take too long to handle emergencies. The weekend shift can be grueling. “I might be there for 60 hours straight,” Valenti says. “If you are committed to this work you just have to do it right.”

Ballroom dancing with wife Elizabeth
Ballroom dancing with wife Elizabeth
His wife, Elizabeth Kingsley, ’78, understands the long hours because she is a cardiologist, too. The couple, who have two grown daughters, both work late, but when they are free, generally in the evening, they unwind and practice ballroom dancing. The two have won top couple awards in ballroom dancing competitions in Las Vegas, Costa Mesa, Calif., and Atlantic City.

There is no doubt that Valenti is a talented musician. He opened for Three Dog Night, Buddy Rich, the Drifters and other big names while playing with a band in college. He even jammed with Jimmy Buffett in front of thousands at the Merri-weather Post Pavilion after beating out other guitarists in a contest sponsored by a local radio station.

Music was a part of Valenti’s life since he was a young boy. His father, who played the saxophone, took his 10 year-old son to a music store and put a violin in his hand. “I could only get a screech out of it,” Valenti recalls. Then his father handed him an acoustic guitar, and the youngster began picking a Johnny Cash tune. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ So, at that point I started playing.”
Around the same time, Valenti developed an interest in medicine. His parents were not well-to-do, but they were always helping neighbors in need. “I grew up in a family where my parents were so kind,” says Valenti, who lived in an apartment in Hyattsville, Md., and shared a room with his two brothers. “I always grew up with the feeling of wanting to give back.”

Valenti graduated valedictorian of his high school class and wore a “regular boys’ haircut.” By the time he was in college at the University of Maryland he had grown his hair below the neck and, with his younger brother, played in a band named the No Where Men and another called Liberation. His mother worried that her sons might get into trouble.

Valenti performing for his medical class at graduation. Sitting at the keyboards is classmate Paul A. Gertler.I said, “Mom, don’t worry. I am not into drugs. We are straight,” he recalls. He was so straight that when the band took a road trip to Detroit, Valenti brought his books. Despite playing six nights a week, Valenti managed a 4.0 grade point average, graduated from college in three years and earned a scholarship to the school of medicine.

He studied hard in medical school, but managed to have fun, too. The summer after his freshman year, he and Paul Gertler, ’78 dissected cadavers to prepare them for the anatomy class for medical students, and hatched a plan to form a band called Whisper, which played country clubs, weddings, and bar mitzvahs on weekends. “It was good money if you were trying to pay your way through medical school,” recalls Valenti, who celebrates a 30th reunion next spring.
Graduating from medical school in 1978, Valenti served his internship and residency in internal medicine at Maryland. After a fellowship in cardiology at Maryland and the Baltimore VA Hospitals, he went into private practice.

“Coming from a musical background I became interested in cardiac rhythms and heart sounds,” Valenti says. “Such an amazing variety of rhythms and tones. I always wanted to achieve a very high level of confidence with treating cardiac emergencies and performing invasive vascular procedures, things that initially as a medical student made me a little nervous.”

Valenti and the Heart Attackers play just once a year at Heartfest, which raises research dollars to support the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. But this past summer, the Heart Attackers played a second concert, the black tie gala celebrating Maryland’s 200th medical school anniversary.

That evening, Valenti transformed himself. He traded in his white medical jacket for a pair of scrubs and his trademark red punk rock wig. He jumped and kicked and played his guitar behind his neck while on his knees. As he looked out onto the dance floor, he could see the smiles on peoples’ faces. He smiled, too.

“It was an honor,” Valenti says. “It was one of the most meaningful things I have ever done in my musical and medical careers. It connected me more than ever to the history of the medical school and to Baltimore.”

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