“Doctor Rock”

When patients have the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu

Ted Schwartzenfeld, DO, who has treated Detroit’s visiting musicians since 1977, shares his insights on working with celebrities.


Many physicians consider their avocation, whether it’s jogging, trumpet-playing or kitesurfing, to be their respite from the medical world. But Ted H. Schwartzenfeld, DO, an otolaryngologist who treats patients all day at his practice in Farmington Hills, Mich., finds solace at the end of the workday by … treating patients. The allure? His outside-the-office patients are world-famous musicians.

Through a connection he established with a rock promoter back in 1977, Dr. Schwartzenfeld has become a go-to physician for singers and performers playing at Detroit-area venues. His star patients span generations and genres—Madonna, Josh Groban, James Taylor and the members of Poison are but a few of the diverse performers Dr. Schwartzenfeld has worked with.

“Treating musicians is just a nice little diversion for me,” he says. “It’s a whole different world, obviously.”

Following is an edited interview with Dr. Schwartzenfeld.

Are you a rock ‘n’ roll fan? Have you had the opportunity to treat any of your favorite performers?

I’ve treated a lot of people. Most of them are nice. It’s strange to see how singers develop and how they progress over the years. Sometimes they go from nothing to superstardom, and that’s surprising. I remember when ‘N Sync were popular back in the ’90s. They were here in Detroit at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and Britney Spears was the first opening act at 5:30 p.m. for 20 minutes. Look where she is now.

This gig has its perks, too. For example, when Kiss were really big, my kids wanted to hear them. Kiss invited my kids backstage, and they were able to see the band without makeup, which was a big deal back then.

Who are some of the biggest performers you’ve treated?

I’ve taken care of Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, some of his band members like Clarence Clemons and Steve Van Zandt. U2. Celine Dion. You name ’em and I’ve probably taken care of them at one time or another. James Taylor, AC/DC, Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses, Eminem, Kid Rock, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Metallica. Just about everybody, really.

What are some of your favorite memories of treating these stars?

A few years ago, when I had surgery on my Achilles, Elton John and Celine Dion signed my cast. Even though celebrities are in a different world, most of them are nice and appreciative of what you do for them.

A couple years ago, Heart was in town. One of the Wilson sisters was having throat problems, and her manager wanted me to see her. I get on the expressway, and I’m driving through rush-hour traffic. I get a phone call from the promoter. He says, ‘Where are you?’ I told him where I was. He said, ‘Pull over on the median and stay there.’ I pull over, and I’m sitting there. About five minutes later, a cop car pulls up in front of me, and the cop says, ‘Follow me.’ He turns his flashers on and we’re driving down the median. It’s rush hour, there’s construction traffic, and I’m trying to keep up with him. He’s flying. We got there in about 20 seconds.

Do you ever get starstruck or nervous about treating a celebrity who is so well-known?

Not really, because they’re people, and most of them are nice and friendly. They don’t have attitudes when I take care of them. They have something wrong, and they want it taken care of. They appreciate the work I do.

I’ve taken care of Ozzy Osbourne forever. I see him nearly every time he’s in town. People ask me, ‘What’s Ozzy like?’ I say, ‘Well, he’s nice. Remember when he had his TV show? That’s what he’s like.’

How do the stars pay for their treatment?

It depends on what’s covered in the contracts. Sometimes the promoters cover the treatment and sometimes the performers pay for it themselves.

Dr. Schwartzenfeld is backstage after chatting with Ray LaMontagne before the musician’s performance in Rochester Hills, Mich.

Sometimes the performers are run down and they have the flu or their throat’s sore. They want to know if they can go on or if they have to cancel the concert. Sometimes their back’s bothering them and they ran out of medication. I treat all kinds of ailments. Usually nothing very big, but stars get sick like everybody else does.

How often do you have to tell singers to cancel their concert?

I’ve only done it once or twice in all the years. Usually I talk to the performer before the show, give him or her the pros and the cons of performing, and I let him or her make the decision.

I believe I did that for Gloria Estefan once. She had performed the night before, and her throat was bothering her. I told her she might be better off if she canceled her show that night.

What are some of the more serious illnesses you’ve had to treat backstage?

I don’t treat anything really serious. The common ailments that bother performers have to do with their voice and their throat.

What is a common treatment for a vocal cord problem?

Sometimes I have to give a patient steroids or other medication for his or her throat. I might tell performers to just sing when they have to, not to rehearse, and to save their voice for the performance. Usually I tell them, if they have a day or two off between shows, just rest the voice and don’t do anything.

What’s it like to treat a vocal cord injury in a patient who makes his or her living from singing? Do you feel a lot of pressure?

Usually all these performers have their own doctors at their home base who take care of them on a regular basis. When they’re on the road, they need someone to take care of them at the time, which is what I do. If an ailment looks bad, I’ll say, ‘When you get home, go see your regular doctor.’

What’s the most rewarding aspect of treating performers?

I enjoy helping them. It gives me a good feeling. The singers call me ‘Doctor Rock’ or ‘The Rock Doctor.’ When they come through, they remember me and ask me how I’m doing. That’s rewarding. Sometimes, if one of my daughters really likes a performer, the performer will talk to her and give her an autograph. They reciprocate a little bit that way.

What’s the most stressful or difficult aspect of treating performers?

It’s really not stressful. The hardest thing is getting to their dressing room with all the security and people around there. It’s not like seeing life and death in the emergency room. I have a lot of fun helping the performers.

Celebrities are notorious for sometimes having big egos and unhealthy lifestyles. Have you ever had to deal with a difficult or noncompliant patient?

If performers aren’t nice and they’re difficult, I just say ‘Either you have to do it this way or goodbye.’ Usually, they come around. If they want to be noncompliant, then I have no control over that. They ask for my advice. If they want to take it, fine. If they don’t, it’s fine.

How often do you encounter difficult performers?

Very rarely.

What tips do you have on working with celebrities?

People often say to me, ‘Can you get me an autograph, can you get me backstage?’ And I say no. You don’t want to impose on celebrities. They’re people and they have their private life. You just deal with them one-on-one as a person, just like you deal with anybody else. When Elton John gets sick and goes to the doctor, he’s not Elton John the singer, he’s Elton John the patient. Sometimes when I treat a performer, he or she will say, ‘You want a T-shirt, do you want an autograph?’ But you don’t want to impose on them because they get imposed on all the time.

So sometimes they offer autographs, but you don’t ask for them?

I don’t, unless one of my kids is really into them. Depending on the rapport I have with the singer, I’ll ask, and usually it’s not a problem.

What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen backstage?

Backstage is really not what it’s cracked up to be. All these performers, they get to the venue and they go to their dressing rooms. Then the ancillary staff run around backstage, setting the stage up, tuning the instruments and getting everything ready for the show. The performers are not around. Once in a while, you’ll see someone walking up and down the halls, but usually it’s pretty quiet back there. Nowadays many performers are not out partying. They used to do more of that in the old days—but nowadays it’s much more of a business, and they know that they have to be in shape for their job. Their job is to go out there for two to three hours a night and perform and make the fans happy.

Have you witnessed this change in the time you’ve been treating performers?

Yes. Back in the ’70s, it was a little bit looser—maybe drugs were more prevalent. I didn’t personally see much drug use back there, but I’m sure that it was happening. Now, it’s all business. Performers are sitting backstage with their laptops and their iPads.

Do you often watch the performances?

Usually, I stay until the performer goes on. Sometimes I’ll stay until intermission. Usually, I’m there before the performance starts, and I’m there until the singer goes on. If there’s a problem, I’ll take care of it before they go onstage or before anything happens.

If I like the performer, I’ll stay the whole time. When I take care of the Eagles or Bruce Springsteen or Elton John, I always watch the whole show.

One comment

  1. Jeffrey A Craven

    How in the heck did he get consent to release information on all those stars. I’m calling this a HIPPA violation for sure. You can’t tell me that all of these performers consented to be mentioned in this article? Really?

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy