San Diego's singing doctor healing patients with music

Posted at 10:07 AM, Dec 23, 2016

SAN DIEGO - If Dawn Mannino's story was about numbers, it would go beyond her set of birds, two dogs or pair of kids she has in her Vista home.

"The scan came back stage 4," Dawn said.

For her and her husband Carl, four is the only number that matters now.

Dawn was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer seven days before Christmas, in 2015. Her family was on their way to Disneyland when they got the news.

"I was like, 'Gosh, could this really be my last Christmas?'" Dawn said. "How can I leave them? I can't."

"That was my thought, too," Carl said. "And it was crushing."

That's when Steven Eisenberg stepped in to help.

"She had stage 4 cancer and it was everywhere," he said.

Eisenberg writes personalized songs for people like Dawn and uses his guitar to perform.

"I took piano lessons as a kid and it didn't really stick," Eisenberg laughed.

He believes there is healing in the harmonies that he writes.

"This is legitimate soul food," Eisenberg said, gesturing to his song lyrics. "It's never about the cancer, there's nothing in here about cancer."

Eisenberg spent the last year with the Manninos, getting to know them, encouraging them and gathering ideas for Dawn's song.

"He became my friend right away, and because he became my friend right away, I trusted him," Dawn said. "And that was the first time I had hope."

The hope that Eisenberg could save her life; not only with his song, but also because he is one of San Diego's best oncologists.

"That first meeting was tough," Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg said he spent his year fighting to give Dawn another Christmas with her girls, 4-year-old Lilian and 7-year-old Sophia.

"There were a few times I was like laying in bed so, so sick and I'm like, 'I am dying,'" Dawn said.

But one year later, just in time for the Christmas she thought she might not get to see, Eisenberg is happy to announce that there is no active cancer in Dawn.

"I wish I could call her 'cancer free,'" Eisenberg said. "It probably is going to come back one day. That's the sad thing about stage 4."

For now, Dawn can sit back and enjoy the music Eisenberg wrote for her.

"It's called 'The Message,'" Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg said there have been hundreds of studies that show the healing power of music is no placebo, but he has experienced it personally.

Several years ago, when he was struggling with colitis, he entered a songwriting contest to take his mind off his health. The winner would receive the prize of having a song written about them.

"And I wrote a story about how his music would inspire me when I was like in the middle of the night, when I was taking care of patients, and you know, like questioning everything," Eisenberg said.

He won, and artist Peter Himmelman wrote a song about him. This gave Eisenberg the epiphany to sing for his patients to lift their spirits when they were suffering and feeling lost.

Eisenberg said he can't be solely credited for the lyrics. He believes his patients' souls make the song.

"I'm taking a little teeny piece of their soul and marinating it for a few days," he said.

When Dawn and Carl told him how they first met, that became the inspiration for the opening line of Dawn's song.

"I was on the third floor balcony and she was on the second floor balcony," Carl said. "I had a fishing pole there. And I figured, 'You know what, maybe I'll just write a little note and I'm going to attach it to the sinker and drop it down from the third floor balcony to the second floor balcony,' and it was dangling there for hours."

"How can I say no to that?" Dawn said, laughing at the memory.

Eisenberg said after that, the first line was easy: "A message on a fishing pole, a message that you're always whole. A message of hope, never give up, nope, on the message."

Eisenberg also played on Dawn's compassion for stray animals in his lyrics by writing: "Taking in a stray, each and every day, it's your message."

During their interview with 10News, Eisenberg performed with backup for the first time, as Carl brought one of his drums from home to play along.

"Drums, co-writer, husband, Carl!" Eisenberg laughed. "It was awesome!"

You can tell Dawn she beat the odds, but she'll just tell you her life is more than a number.

"It seems hopeless but there is hope, there is hope," Dawn said. "There are miracles in the world."