Yum Yum! Chabert ER doctor locates his groove at helm of medical rockers

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Emergency medicine is Dr. Tom Falterman’s main calling, but music runs a close second.

By day, Dr. Tom works as the section chief of Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center’s emergency room. But any given night, he straps on his Gibson Les Paul standard guitar and becomes the lead force behind the Yum Yum, a five-piece band consisting of mostly physicians.

Yum Yum is slated to take the stage Saturday at Relay for Life of Terrebonne. The band takes the stage Saturday night at the Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center.

Tom Falterman came about music and medicine honestly. His dad earned a band scholarship to Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) playing trumpet with the school band. A collapsed lung would later cut his playing short, but by then, the senior Falterman was able to graduate from medical school and set up his own medical family practice.

Dr. Tom gravitated to the guitar when he was in the fifth grade. His older brother, Charles, played.

“He made it look so easy and so cool,” Dr. Tom recalls.

But even before he picked up the six-string instrument, Dr. Tom was giving his tennis racquet a workout accompanying Elvis Presley tunes.

“My brother loved Elvis. I can remember putting on the record, setting the needle in the vinyl groove, grabbing my tennis racquet and going to town,” Dr. Tom says, smiling. “I guess it was our early version of air guitar.”

Other interests would come and go, but the guitar was always prominent. Musical tastes also shifted from Elvis to ‘80s bands: Fleetwood Mac, Journey and Boston. And Dr. Tom’s playing chops continued to improve.

Like his father before him, Dr. Tom played regular gigs with a band in college, sometimes two or three a week.

“By the time you unloaded the equipment, set up and played and then broke down the equipment, it was a job,” he recalls. “Now, we play a gig probably every three months or so. By the time we play, we’re hungry for it. We’re anxious to get it set up and play together, and breaking it down is just part of the night.”

After medical school, Dr. Tom was assigned to Charity Hospital’s emergency room for his residency training. The next year consisted of long shifts, non-stop brutal traumas and little time for much else. Joining a band was out of the question, but music was still the ideal way to unwind.

It didn’t take long for Dr. Tom and fellow resident Dr. Gregory Fernandez, who sings and plays bass, to hook up.

Talk about music morphed into after-work jams. Soon, the two were renting space at the Art Egg Studios, an old warehouse on Broad Street in downtown New Orleans about a mile from Chabert. There, they played into the wee hours of the morning. “We didn’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbors,” Dr. Tom chides. “There were none.”

The music was eclectic – Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, 311 and Weezer with a little Van Morrison and Lynrd Skynyrd mixed in. The song list began to grow as more members arrived.

New residents at Chabert made the perfect bandmates. Everyone shared the same crazy hours and craved a break from the hectic pace of the war zone downtown New Orleans was quickly becoming.

It was June 2004, and Dr. Tom’s Charity ties had helped fill out the band.

Dr. Greg, who plays bass and assists with vocals, is an emergency department physician. Dr. Brent Hemelt is section chief of Chabert’s obstetrics and gynecology department and plays guitar and sings. Richard Romano, who plays lead and rhythm guitar, is a dentist and financial advisor. And Ben Knight, the only non-doc in the bunch, plays drums with Yum Yum and is a security technician. The players range in age from 31 to 62, which makes for a diverse playlist.

The band was shaping up nicely and promised to be a great outlet for the docs in June 2005, just as they were finishing their Charity residency.

And then August came. So did a beast of a storm: Katrina.

“We got the call to come and get our equipment from the studio owner,” Dr. Tom recalls. “He told us it probably wasn’t salvageable.”

The doctor still remembers vividly the stench, mold and horrid storm water pouring from his guitar case. The band’s gear – instruments, amplifiers and assorted gear – was gone. “We probably lost about $6,000 or $7,000 that night,” he said. “And we were residents. We didn’t have anything.”

Drs. Tom and Greg were assigned to Chabert after Katrina. One of the earliest post-storm shows the band did was a relief fundraiser for Chabert employees. Other gigs soon followed: Charenton Beach’s grand opening; an unplugged session for the Chitimacha summer camp in Charenton and, one of the biggest to date, an appearance atop the roof of Lowe’s Hotel in downtown New Orleans for FATE, the Female Awareness of Tobacco Effects.

The band is also a regular at many non-profit medical fundraisers, such as the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure in Thibodaux and Houma’s Race for the Cure.

“About 80 percent of what we play is for fundraisers,” Dr. Tom says. “We believe in giving back to our community, and it’s important to back important causes.”

And cancer-related causes such as this weekend’s event are close to the hearts of each of the docs. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t come in contact with someone facing this disease,” Dr. Tom says. “It may be the first time they are being diagnosed, or they are in the final stages. [Relay for Life] is such a moving experience for each of us.”

In spring 2006, the band showed off its musical muscle publicly at a fundraiser for a Charity lab worker who was exposed to hepatitis through her work and required a liver transplant. The performance, held at Houma’s Municipal Auditorium, drew a number of people and elevated the band’s popularity.

“Let’s just say we started getting calls,” Dr. Tom says.

It was during a call with an event promoter that Dr. Tom landed on the band’s unusual moniker.

“I had my son in the car and he was hungry,” he explains. Just as the caller kept pushing for the name of Dr. Tom’s nameless group, the physician pointed to Raising Cane’s, suggesting the drive-thru to his offspring. “Yum yum,” the youngster responded, and Yum Yum Dr. Tom relayed to the promoter.

“I figured we’d change it a bunch of times, but for some reason, it has stuck,” he says.

Don’t be surprised if Yum Yum releases a record of originals soon. And don’t be surprised to see more appearances. “We’re not going to quit our day jobs, but we are improving,” Dr. Tom says, smiling. “I’m just saying …” •