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School of Medicine discoveries

October 24, 2018

Through Your Eyes

Mike Karbowski, PhD’76 (PHTX), M.D.

Mike Karbowski, PhD’76 (PHTX), M.D. Photography by Greg Gilbert

Mike Karbowski, PhD’76 (PHTX), M.D., felt drawn to the stand-up bass that was sitting in the corner of the dormitory lounge.

A sophomore at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., at the time, he got up from his comfy seat and began plucking away.

“I kept going until the sun came up and I had blisters,” he says. “I thought, ‘Hey, I can play this!’ There was a lot of satisfaction in that.”

He joined The Downhill Singers, and the band won second place in the college talent show.

“I lugged the bass around wherever I went,” Karbowski says.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1969, Karbowski left Memphis for the University of Michigan to study pharmacology. He later transferred to VCU where he continued his research in the field of narcotics. He also made time for the bass. He and his friends threw together a bluegrass band and played around town whenever they could.

“I really just taught myself to play,” Karbowski says. “The good thing about the bass is you only have to play one note at a time. I practiced whenever I could.”

After completing his Ph.D., Karbowski entered medical school at the University of Chicago. The demands of his studies left little time for music.

“I never had a chance to pull out the bass,” he says. “It collected dust.”

Karbowski moved to Seattle in 1980, for his residency in anesthesiology. He has remained in the city ever since, practicing anesthesiology at Group Health (now Kaiser) for more than 30 years. He was named a Top Doc in Seattle several times before retiring in 2017 as the chief of anesthesiology.

Mike Karbowski, PhD’76 (PHTX), M.D.

Mike Karbowski, PhD’76 (PHTX), M.D. Photography by Greg Gilbert

“I think I went to school longer than anyone I’ve ever met,” Karbowski says. “I was 35 when I finally finished. It took me a while to focus on what I really wanted to do. I knew being in a lab all day conducting research wasn’t for me. I found my passion.”

It wasn’t until about 2000, though, that Karbowski was reunited with his other love. When Karbowski’s daughter invited a friend to visit, the friend’s banjo-playing father spotted Karbowski’s bass and asked if he played. Karbowski replied, “I used to.” Next thing Karbowski knew, he’d been invited to join the banjo player’s bluegrass band, the Weavils.

“It’s been so much fun,” says Karbowski, who has two grown children. “It’s very satisfying to take a piece of music, put instruments together and get people tapping their toes, dancing and clapping their hands.”

The Weavils, a six-member band, primarily performs bluegrass, but the group also plays folk, country, Cajun and even a few Hawaiian tunes. They do a mix of original and cover music at weddings, festivals, charity events, nursing homes and other places around town.

To watch the Weavils  perform, visit www.theweavils.com/videos

To watch the Weavils perform, visit theweavils.com

“Music makes people happy,” Karbowski says. “And it’s provided an outlet for a talent I didn’t even know I had. We have become very close bandmates, and I treasure those friendships.”

Karbowski, 71, also plays competitive senior softball and enjoys fishing.

“Playing the bass and performing with a band is special,” he says. “It’s something I will do for as long as I can. I hope when I die someone tosses my bass in the coffin – just in case I’m not really dead I can keep on plucking.”

By Janet Showalter

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016