DSO Conversations: Coping with COVID-19


Dr Sarah Lynar

In these unsettling times, it’s important to stay connected and to continue sharing our experiences. To this end, we have started a new interview series called ‘DSO Conversations: Coping with COVID-19’, where we chat to musicians about how they are dealing with the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For our first interview we sat down and talked (virtually!) with Dr Sarah Lynar. Most of us know the talented trumpeter and DSO board member for her musical rather than her medical skills, but during the day Sarah is a doctor and a Specialist in Infectious Diseases working hard to care for COVID-19 patients and to coordinate the NT’s response to the virus. Here she talks about her work, how she is coping with #isolife, her recommendations for a #stayhome playlist, and more.


Could you tell us a bit about the work you do and your part in the NT’s response to COVID-19?

SL: I’m a doctor, and a Specialist in Infectious Diseases. I work at Royal Darwin Hospital, and moved to Darwin just over 4 years ago because of the interesting variety of tropical infectious diseases up here and the vibrant medical community I had heard about. COVID-19 has been a strange experience for me, in that it is in some ways ‘core business’ for people in my profession, but in other ways completely unprecedented, as people love to say these days. For me it started back in January, at first with an escalating number of meetings regarding the NT’s response, trying to model risk and work out what it might mean for us. Then as the world started to take more notice and things started to ramp up, it began to completely saturate both my home and work life.

Currently, I am the specialist looking after the Top End’s COVID-19 patients (we are on a rotating roster aimed at giving each person some rest), which comes with a unique set of challenges, and coordinating of a newly established ‘COVID-19 ward’. I am clinical lead for Infection Control at the hospital, which means I am involved with decisions regarding personal protective equipment, writing a lot of guidelines, and trying to keep people safe from both COVID-19 and of course other infections at the same time. I am charged with coordinating our department’s outpatient clinics, so a lot of time as gone into restructuring that to include only urgent reviews now mostly done by phone. I am also clinical lead for the Hospital In The Home program at the Lorraine Brennan Centre, where a whole wing has now been converted to manage patients with COVID-19.

My other position is with Menzies School of Health as a Research Fellow. I was meant to be in Timor-Leste over these past few weeks where I’m involved in research looking at antibiotic resistance, and that has had to be put on hold while international travel is restricted. The Masters course and other interstate courses I had been taking have had to be put on hold. And the meetings continue, about everything from our departmental response up to our NT-wide response. Essentially almost nothing is as it was a few months ago.

As a medical professional, you are presumably still going to work. So what’s the biggest change the COVID-19 restrictions have brought about for you personally?

SL: For me the lack of music has definitely made the biggest impact on my life, despite all the huge work changes. I count myself so lucky that my job and income have continued, in contrast to many of my good friends who have been impacted significantly by a lack of employment opportunity and financial stability. I really can’t complain. However, my evenings pre-COVID-19 were invariably filled up with music rehearsals and the occasional gig, and this has, in a way, been my saviour during my time in Darwin. Musicians have become my family, and music has become my creative release and my source of balance. COVID-19 has removed a large portion of that, while significantly adding to work stress, so I’m having to be intentional in looking for ways to balance work with other things that allow for some rejuvenation.

How has COVID-19 affected you as a musician? Are you finding more time to play at home or less? Are you able to connect with other musicians?

SL: I live in an apartment, so I find it difficult to find times in the day where I can easily (and unapologetically) play trumpet at home with our tiled acoustics. I can feel my lip muscles atrophying as we speak. My housemate is musical, so we have had a few jam sessions with me attempting to play some the guitar and violin, but my skills with these do limit me a bit. There are a number of musicians that are reaching out in the virtual space, for which I’m so grateful. I also sent in a vocal submission for a ‘couch choir’ the other day, where they assembled over a thousand individual versions of a three-part song and created a virtual choir. A fun experience with a really heart-warming result. Yet nothing quite fills the void that the lack of live music has left. The weekend before last I was meant to be singing with the Vocalective choir doing Brahms‘ beautiful German Requiem, and playing with the local band The Neo, in two gloriously contrasting concerts. These were the first to be cancelled on my calendar, and of course the DSO cancellations mean that the immediate calendar is looking very empty. I guess we’ll get used to the little pangs of loss over the next few months, as each of these planned dates goes by unacknowledged by communal music.

Do you think music has an important role to play during this time in helping keep the community’s spirits up?

SL: I’ve been so impressed seeing how creative our arts community has been over this time. They are some of the most impacted, yet there is a sense of ‘we can (and must) still do this’ over the virtual music world. I’ve been watching live musicians play from across the world and been able to comment in real-time, and listened to beautiful layered recordings by artists stuck in their houses alone. I love that people are still finding ways to share their passion. I also think listening to, and playing, music in our own space is so important while we can’t go out and share it with other people. It brings clarity, relaxation, comfort, and stimulation all at the same time. There are not many other things that achieve that.

What are your top recommendations for a #stayhome music playlist?

SL: Ooh that’s a tough one! I like a mix of genres, and love to listen to whatever Spotify playlist has been recommended to me. This week with the deaths of Bill Withers and Ellis Marsalis I have been playing a lot of their music, as well as a bit from Ellis’ son, Wynton, who is my all-time trumpet idol. How could anyone go past that Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto?! I otherwise have a fairly eclectic musical taste, and am happy as long as the music makes me both feel something and think something. This week’s high rotation has included Hiatus Kaiyote, Nils Frahm, Zaz, London Grammar, Emily Wurramara, Esperanza Spalding, and Michael Kiwanuka. ‘Meditation’ from Thais by Massenet, ‘Bedouin Song’ by Lior and ‘Us Against the World’ by Coldplay are three of my go-tos when I need to relax. I also enjoy just randomly searching for newly released classical music albums, which introduces me to a whole variety of composers and artists I’ve never known about before. Who knows what next week’s playlist will look like!

Finally, what are your thoughts on how Australia is handling the crisis? Any parting thoughts on how we can all get through this difficult period together?

SL: There have obviously been a lot of opinions and conflicting advice around, which has made it hard for people to know how this pandemic should look for them. A lot of that confusion stems from the fact that both human behaviour and infection dynamics can sometimes be difficult to predict. It has also been hard to work out what applies to us in the NT, where we don’t yet have community transmission like many of the other States. However the message that I’m sure almost everyone has internalised by now is to stay at home where we can, in order to #flattenthecurve and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed by the cases that do come. I think this week has been promising in the drop in numbers both in Australia and in the NT, yet we can’t be complacent. We have a beautifully eclectic community here, and there are some that are far more vulnerable than others, so it’s our responsibility to keep everyone safe. I want to say thanks to everyone in the orchestra and the wider music community – the healthcare community couldn’t do this without you, and the Darwin community couldn’t do this without you either, in more ways than one.

Technology is amazing, and I think the DSO initiatives in trying to keep us all connected and enjoying music in some way are really commendable. We all need each other more than ever. In saying that, I can’t wait to be able to see everyone again and make music together.