DR. ROBERT OSSOFF WAS HOME watching Monday Night Football last December when the call came. Country singer Naomi Judd was on the line, frantic because her daughter Wynonna had lost her voice just 48 hours before the duo’s farewell concert in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The Nashville-based ear-and-throat specialist met Wynonna at midnight at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center clinic, examined her fire-red larynx and prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine and a 24-hour moratorium on talking or singing.
Two nights later, Ossoff made a “concert call” to check on his patient and stayed on—even after learning that his teenage son had broken his collarbone—because, he says, “Wynonna was starting to have trouble. Backstage, we mixed up honey and warm water to soothe her larynx. That was a memorable night.”
One of many for a doctor who ministers to some of America’s twangiest vocal cords, including those of Larry Gatlin, Kathy Mattea, Crystal Gayle, Joe Diffie, Randy Travis, Kicky Van Shelton, Reba McEntire, Johnny Cash and K. T. Oslin. Since 1986 when he gave up his post at Northwestern University School of Medicine to become head of the otolaryngology department at Vanderbilt’s medical center, Ossoff, 45, has become the lead man for country singers whose vocal cords are frayed, whose voices are reduced to a whisper, whose throats ache like Billy Ray Cyrus’s heart—or who just want to know how to keep their “instrument” in good singing order.
“Unlike opera singers, country-music singers have had very little training in how to care for the voice,” says Ossoff. The otolaryngologist, who is medical director of the new Vanderbilt University Voice Center, has seen the sorry consequences of this oversight up close: cysts on Larry Gatlin’s vocal cords, a blood blister on Kathy Mattea’s and a cyst on Grammy-winning gospel singer Jim Murray’s, all removed by Ossoff.
“Ossoff is the man I trust with my voice more than anyone in the world,” says Johnny Cash.
Gatlin goes further. “I credit Dr. Ossoff with being God’s instrument in my life,” he says. “I believe he saved my career.”
The admiration is mutual. “Nothing can be more gratifying than to restore a human voice,” says Ossoff. “When you can go hear that patient perform, you realize what kind of an impact your work has made. I can’t tell you what a charge I get out of hearing Larry sing at the Grand Ole Opry postsurgery,” he says. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Ossoff is even getting some kicks out of the presidential campaign. Last December Bill Clinton visited the center for advice on holding on to his voice on the hustings. “We strongly advised against the use of caffeine and chocolate [they dry up the larynx] and dairy products [they thicken the larynx mucus, necessitating excessive throat-clearing] and suggested he drink a lot of water,” says the doctor. Ossoff also recommended the use of a steam inhaler before speeches to “loosen things up.”
Patients looking for a quick fix may want a different doctor. Before he even looks at a larynx, Ossoff probes into some unexpected corners of his patients’ lives: Do they eat junk food? Do they sleep on a full stomach? Do they sleep on their right side? (All of these factors can expose the larynx to burning stomach acid.) Ossoff advises singers to allow at least five minutes of warmup exercises, for example, scales and arpeggios, and 15 minutes of cooldown—no talking—for every show. And he suggests they install humidifiers on their tour buses.
The younger of two children of Michael, a leather manufacturer and Eve, a housewife, Ossoff grew up in Boston, where hockey was his first love and a pro career his fantasy. By college, though, his attention shifted to fixing teeth rather than knocking them out. He got a denial degree at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., then decided to move on to its medical school. “What attracted me to otolaryngology was the precision part of the operation,” says Ossoff, who, early in his career, treated John Belushi for laryngitis and assisted in minor throat surgery on Yul Brynner.
These days Ossoff spends his scarce leisure time plying the waters of the Cumberland River in a 42-foot cabin cruiser. Frequently his crew are his second wife, Lynn, 37, a former operating-room nurse, their daughter, Leslin, 4, and Jake, 15, Ossoff’s son from his first marriage. Lynn has her own musical career of sorts—she sings in the Nashville barbershop chorus, the Sweet Adelines. But Ossoff knows his limitations. Though he is occasionally introduced from the audience by grateful performers at C&W concerts, he’s never been invited to step up to the microphone. “I’d be embarrassed,” says Ossoff. “I simply cannot carry a tune.”
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville