Winter 2019

The Music Man

For over three decades, the biggest country stars—Johnny Cash, Larry Gatlin, Wynonna Judd, and Mandy Moore—have trusted one team with their most previous instruments: Robert Ossoff and the Vanderbilt Voice Center.

By Courtney Hollands

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Portrait by William Deshazer

When the dry Las Vegas air was wreaking havoc on Johnny Cash’s famous baritone in the early 1990s, his road manager knew just who to call: Nashville otolaryngologist Robert Ossoff, D73, M75. Together, they designed a one-of-a-kind “misting” microphone that delivered much-needed moisture on stage. “Ossoff,” Cash once told People magazine, “is the man I trust with my voice more than anyone in the world.”

And when “Volkswagen”-size cysts on Larry Gatlin’s vocal cords limited his range, the Grammy Award–winning gospel crooner turned to Ossoff, who removed them in a June 1991 procedure that was filmed and broadcast on “Good Morning America.” Gatlin has had three subsequent tune-up surgeries at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Voice Center, Ossoff’s home base for some three decades.

“I can sing higher and better than I did thirty years ago,” Gatlin said recently, fresh off performing with the Gatlin Brothers at a Houston memorial service for President George H.W. Bush. “Whatever music my brothers and I have been able to make and whatever songs I’ve been able to sing—literally—over the last thirty-something years are directly attributable to the skill and care of one Robert Ossoff.”

And that’s the way it’s been for years: Country singers who have trouble with their most important instruments know they can count on the Voice Center. That’s because Ossoff and his team have long been on the cutting edge of vocal care, all the while training the best and the brightest in the field today. It was the end of an era when Ossoff retired in December—but his legacy will endure. Plus, colleagues and patients might not let him go just yet.

***

Strange but true: Country music’s star doctor is a Yankee. The son of a leather-manufacturer father and a housewife mother, Ossoff grew up playing hockey and racing sailboats in Beverly, Massachusetts, a coastal town north of Boston. He had dreams of being a surgeon and headed first to Bowdoin College, and then to the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. Degree in hand, he enrolled in the School of Medicine. Ossoff considered plastic surgery, but ultimately chose to stick close to the region of the body he was most familiar with from his dental studies: the ear, nose, and throat.

After graduating medical school in 1975, Ossoff landed an otolaryngology residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree, conducted NIH-funded research, and stayed on an extra year to complete a fellowship with prominent head and neck surgeon George Sisson.

It was in his next role, as an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, that Ossoff began to build his reputation as an innovator. He created a hands-on workshop in the then-nascent practice of laser surgery, which quickly attracted the attention of ENTs from across the United States. “Laser surgery is such an important tool in our field,” he said. “The laser was delivered to the larynx in those days with a joystick micromanipulator attached to a microscope. For the more senior surgeons, using a joystick was just something they didn’t have experience with yet.”

The related lectures Ossoff gave on the subtle nuances of endoscopic laser surgery, and the papers he published, led to a tenured position at Northwestern and put him on the radar of Vanderbilt University and its medical center. In 1985, the Southern hospital approached Ossoff with an offer to jumpstart its long-dormant otolaryngology department. “They gave me the opportunity of a lifetime—to go there at age thirty-nine and put together a department from scratch,” he said. He couldn’t say no.

***

Ossoff wasted no time. He recruited Jim Duncavage, Jim Netterville, and Dave Zealer, and together the “founding four” officially launched the Department of Otolaryngology in July 1986. From day one, Ossoff had a vision for the next step: a multidisciplinary voice clinic in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry and the epicenter of country music.

“It was going to be a sports-medicine center for the vocal athlete,” he recalled. “In addition to having otolaryngologists, it was going to focus on the voice, the larynx, and the airway—we would also have speech pathologists who had special training in taking care of and rehabilitating voices and singing specialists.” The center would treat issues like strained blood vessels, cysts, and irritation of the vocal cords, of course, but experts would also instruct patients on how to improve their performance and head off injuries.

Larry Gatlin and Robert Ossoff (seated) share a moment at the Vanderbilt Voice Center. Photo: Courtesy of Vanderbilt University (Gatlin) / AP Images

“It didn’t take long in this town for me to realize that so many of the problems I was seeing that required surgery or a few weeks off stage to allow something to heal,” Ossoff said, “were very preventable with just a bit of knowledge.” For example, he recommends drinking eight to ten glasses of water a day to keep the voice well-lubricated, but no more than sixteen ounces of caffeine, dairy, chocolate, or alcohol, which can thicken throat mucus and act like fine-grain sandpaper between the vocal folds. And eating at least two hours before bed can keep acid reflux at bay—easier said than done for musicians chowing down on the tour bus after a show.

The otolaryngology department was already delivering this kind of advice to such famous singers as Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, Wynonna Judd, and Larry Gatlin. Ossoff also forged a relationship with Joe Galante, then-head of RCA Records’ Nashville division. Sending his newly signed artists Ossoff’s way, Galante also weighed in on the business plan for the proposed center and helped spread the word.

With the groundwork laid, the Vanderbilt Voice Center—the first of its kind in an academic setting—opened in 1991. A story heralding the facility ran with a photo of Ossoff and Johnny Cash on the front page of the Tennessean on January 13 that year, just below news that Congress had authorized military action in the First Gulf War.

Joining the country stars who’ve passed through the Voice Center over the years—many giving Ossoff and his team gold records for the waiting-room walls—are CEOs, opera singers, newscasters, ministers, and politicians such as Bill Clinton, who hoped to learn how to preserve his voice on the presidential campaign trail.

“Whatever songs I’ve been able to sing over the last thirty-something years are directly attributable to the skill and care of one Robert Ossoff.”
—Grammy award-winning singer Larry Gaitlin

Meanwhile, the operative procedures and techniques developed at the Voice Center represent the standard of care throughout the world. In 1991, Ossoff performed one of the country’s first laryngeal microflap surgeries, a minimally invasive procedure that lifts the mucous membrane to allow the excision of lesions. The next year, he instituted a fellowship in laryngology and voice care, paving the way for laryngology to be recognized as subspecialty.

To date, the center has trained fifty-three fellows, many of whom went on to start and staff similar voice facilities across the U.S. and in Canada. “Some of the gratification I have had, and continue to have, is to see the people we’ve trained leave us and be successful, whether in community-based practice or academics or other facets of medicine,” Ossoff said. “It’s part of passing the torch and stepping aside, to realize it’s no longer about you, but about the folks you’ve empowered to be leaders.”

***

Vanderbilt University has already established a lectureship in Ossoff’s honor, and this May, the school will grant Ossoff emeritus status. In his retirement, he plans to fish, cheer on the Nashville Predators hockey team, practice photography, and tour America in an RV with his wife, Lynn—hitting the road in a way that’s familiar to many of his touring patients. Yet Ossoff isn’t stepping away completely. He will continue to work with residents and lend a hand at the medical center when he’s in town.

Ossoff will no longer see patients, but Larry Gatlin, for one, isn’t about to let him go so easily: “I told him yesterday on the phone, ‘You’re retiring but only, God forbid, until the time I have to have [surgery] again, and then you’re going to do it.’”

During the Vanderbilt Voice Center’s almost-three decades, Ossoff has been recognized for his talents in various ways: gratitude from scores of trainees, dedications in album liner notes, a gold record from Johnny Cash hanging at home. But through it all, one of the biggest rewards has been the music.

“All doctors help patients,” Ossoff said. “I’ve just felt very blessed that I could help patients continue to do what they love to do so many others can benefit from listening to it.”

Contact Courtney Hollands at courtney.hollands@tufts.edu.

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