Debra Irizarry’s life might seem like it was pulled from a pulpy soap opera — the kind with the heroine who, after so many seasons, has passed through so many too-strange-to-be-true story lines.
As she strolls the streets around her home in Crestone, she knows everybody and everything about the small Colorado town. She used to be married to the owner of the new cafe down the street. She’s on a first-name basis with the guy who owns the grocery store. She’s in a relationship of sorts with the owner of the rock shop around the corner.
But do those folks know the rest of the story? That she’s a free spirit who adheres to certain Buddhist philosophies and American Indian traditions. That she’s a single mother of two — her daughter, Jade, is 17, and her son, Leaf, is 15. That she’s a multiple sclerosis survivor, having been diagnosed nearly 15 years ago.
A double life? Or triple? These days, she’s also emerged as something of a fixture in the Colorado music community. Irizarry is the bassist/vocalist of Colorado psych-rock band Strange Lights, which has seen more than 500,000 downloads from its website, strangelights.net. And she’s the owner of Wunderground Studio, a new recording space in her arty hometown nestled against the Sangre de Cristos.
OK, let’s go for a quad. Irizarry, who is slight, by all accounts attractive, a year shy of 50 and known for her no-nonsense Bronx accent, is also a board-certified plastic surgeon who practices in Lone Tree several days a month. She’s an honors grad from New York Medical College and did her residencies at some of New York City’s best clinics.
“Yeah, people don’t know what to think about me,” Irizarry said, sipping a glass of red wine before seeing a recent sold-out concert by the band National at the Fillmore Auditorium.
“Some of the people in Crestone think I’m too serious. When my daughter was 13 and was given beer by a
21-year-old, I called the cops. But the people in Lone Tree probably think I’m a hippie. I go to drum circles. I own a hand drum. I dance around the fire — not naked, though.”
Irizarry’s journey has been full of turns, starting in the Jewish home in the bustling Bronx of her childhood to the quiet, two-story house where she now hangs her hats in Crestone, a town that is considered an international spiritual hub. From a grueling slate of intense medical residencies that created a world of stress to all-night, stress-relieving peyote ceremonies in the Baca Grande.
“What I love about Debby is that she’s so many things at once,” said Brad Smalling, the co-owner and head engineer at Evergroove Studios in Evergreen.
“She can be motherly, very stern and giving, yet she doesn’t hesitate to tell you what’s on her mind, and it should never be taken negatively. If you’re a friend and she disagrees with you, she’ll say, ‘I think you’re wrong.’ She’s gentle but a little gruff, and it’s a little bit of that New York attitude that makes her great.
“She’s worked very hard to be where she is.”
Irizarry has lived a life. And while her current quixotic approach to life is unusual, the memories that haunt her the most are also among her greatest inspirations.
When Irizarry was 24, her brother was shot and killed in the Bronx — a blow that set her back and made her question life in the big city she still loves. She persevered through medical school and eventually opened up her own practice in upstate New York.
“That was back when things were going as planned,” Irizarry said.
When she was 35, she was diagnosed with MS, which brought an immediate end to her career and, seemingly, her life. “I’d lost my brother, lost my career and been diagnosed with a severe illness,” Irizarry said. “I didn’t know where I was going, but I moved to Santa Fe with my kids and then ex-husband. I wasn’t running away. But when my kids got older, I had more fear about them running around. When I grew up in New York, it was 2,000 murders a year and the AIDS plague and lots of crime and people dropping like flies from HIV.”
Moved to Crestone
They were in Santa Fe for five years before Irizarry and her then-husband discovered tiny Crestone on a camping trip. In 2001 they made the move north, and Irizarry hasn’t looked back since. It’s quite a move for a New York girl — one that was drawn to the medical profession early on.
“Surgery is like arts and crafts on people,” she said with a smile. “My daughter was just asking me why I liked surgery, and she’s very arts and craftsy like me. I like that fussy, beautiful work. I like making people very pretty. It’s a very particular thing.”
But why plastic surgery?
“When I was a general surgeon, I did beautiful operations — a gorgeous gall bladder operation — and it made me sad, because then you’d have to close up the abdomen. All your best work, nobody would ever see it.”
But after her diagnosis of MS in 1996, she couldn’t practice anymore. The disease’s fatigue had crippled her body, and the psychological damage was also intense. The doctor was suddenly a patient, and her move west was a much- needed healing journey.
What started in Santa Fe was carried through in Crestone. More than 10 years after giving up her practice, she regained the courage to re-enter the medical profession, regaining her drive via American Indian rituals. To this day, Irizarry attributes her drive and confidence to the meditation and prayer that took place at the all-night peyote ceremonies she attended.
As a medical doctor, Irizarry knows what some in the profession — and out of it — would think about that treatment route.
“People who have not been to a peyote ceremony say it’s a bunch of hippies staying up all night getting stoned, but really it’s a prayer vigil for the world,” Irizarry said. “It’s not like you’re sitting there and spacing out. I know psychedelic drugs have a lot of medical uses, including psychotherapy, drug treatments and post- traumatic stress syndrome. When I got diagnosed in New York, I was exhausted. I was falling apart. But being a part of this group with intense meditation and peyote, I was able to let go of a lot of fears — fears about going back to work and getting sick again.”
The other great healer in her life has been music. Irizarry has been playing various instruments since she was 8, but until recently her music has been about creating something for other people. She still views her music as “good medicine for the world,” but now she’s writing music with her bandmate/boyfriend Lonnie Roth for her own benefit.
“More and more, I don’t make music with other people in mind,” Irizarry said. “I make it because I think it’s a good thing to make. It’s always helped me cope. Being a songwriter in the ’80s, I didn’t have the right way to externalize or process certain things except through an art form. That used to be painting for me. And now it’s music.”
Gothic folk/psychedelic rock
Strange Lights’ music walks the line between the Gothic folk and the psychedelic rock. Irizarry and Roth have grown together in their 11 years of collaboration, and their chemistry is apparent.
With her mind reset, her music taking sail and her Colorado board certifications behind her, she searched for the right surgeon to work alongside — someone who would work with her unusual circumstances. Because of her illness, she needed to be supervised for a certain number of procedures. Dr. David Broadway, one of two senior partners at Bod:Evolve in Lone Tree, appreciated Irizarry’s wit and personality and volunteered.
“From our first conversation, I knew she was an intelligent person,” said Broadway. “Her health history took her away from being a physician, and you could tell she loved it and wanted to get back. The only way she could do it was under my supervision, because the state required that for her. It was awkward for me supervising another board-certified plastic surgeon, but we both realized what needed to be done. ”
Irizarry works six days per month at Bod:Evolve, and she also works one day a week in Crestone — in an office she shares with a local dentist. (“It’s basically the same chair and light that I need for what I do,” she said.) People drive from Alamosa and Salida to see Irizarry in Crestone, and she also has a regular customer base in her hometown.
“It’s mostly Botox and injectables, but about 40 percent of my Crestone clients need skin-cancer excisions,” Irizarry said. “It’s actual surgery — small pieces of skin have to be cut out and sutured up. And it’s good for them because I’m highly qualified, compared to other people down there.”
Irizarry is no stranger to plastic surgery herself. She’s learned a lot from injecting herself with Botox, and she’s also had other surgeons help with the tip of her nose, some liposuction on her hips and an upper eyelid tuck. She’s scheduled with her colleague, Dr. John A. Millard, to have some lipo on her arms. A face lift is likely on the horizon — but not yet. Life is good for the time being.
At home, her daughter is applying for a Boettcher Scholarship, which requires an essay on the person she most admires. (Jade is writing it about her mom, she informed her, but she won’t let her read it — yet.) Irizarry has shared custody of her kids with her ex, who lives down the street, enabling her to come to Lone Tree for a few days, where she rents a room, or locks herself in the recording studio in Evergreen.
In October, she and Roth did just that — and after five days in the studio with Smalling, who is the resident engineer at Wunderground, they came out with a near-finished EP — to be titled “Short Bus” — and a fun cover of the Shins’ indie hit “New Slang.”
“They’ve focused on creating a sound with this EP, and it’s stripped back — just Lonnie’s guitar, Deb’s bass and both of them singing,” said Smalling. “They knew exactly what they wanted, and each of the songs have a little hook that gets stuck in your head. They seem fresh and like they’re progressing.”
It certainly feels right to Irizarry, especially since she’s in a comfortable place for the creation of music, the forging of a community, the running of multiple businesses — and the living of a life she’s now able to enjoy.
“I do drive to Denver a couple times a month, but when I’m down here, I just walk everywhere,” Irizarry said. “I get to have intimate relationships with people. It’s really slow. I’m really happy. And it’s been great for my health. I like it, and that’s likely why I’ve gotten so much better.”