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Ossoff leaves lasting legacy of caring, dedication

Dec. 19, 2018, 2:40 PM

Robert Ossoff, DMD, MD, is retiring after 32 years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. (photo by Nathan Zucker)

by Kelsey Herbers

According to Robert Ossoff, DMD, MD, most people think of the academic triad as patient care, education and research, but there’s another triad that has helped guide his 32-year-long career at Vanderbilt University Medical Center: leadership, legacy and succession.

Ossoff, the Guy M. Maness Professor of Laryngology and Voice, is retiring from his role at the end of the month, leaving behind a trail of successfully trained subspecialists across the country and a large footprint on the field of laryngology.

Most known for being the first Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and for his role in founding the Vanderbilt Voice Center in 1991, Ossoff has held an array of positions since he joined Vanderbilt’s faculty in July 1986, including the first director for the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences, associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs, chief of staff for Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital, assistant vice chancellor of Compliance and Corporate Integrity and executive medical director for the Vanderbilt Voice Center. He was also highly involved with the creation of the Free Electron Laser Center at Vanderbilt University, bringing with him knowledge he gained during his residency and faculty appointment at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Prior to his arrival, the Department of Otolaryngology hadn’t had a full-time chair in 14 years. Alongside James Duncavage, MD, James Netterville, MD, and David Zealear, PhD — the other three members of what the department calls its “founding four” — Ossoff re-established the Department on VUMC’s campus, creating a residency program in otolaryngology, a fellowship program in laryngology that has since trained 53 fellows, and enhanced Vanderbilt’s reputation of being a world-class leader in the field through its innovation in areas that had largely been unexplored.

“We often speak about medicine and music being Nashville’s two greatest industries. Dr. Ossoff was among the first to recognize this connection, helping VUMC build bridges and forge new relationships with our entertainment industry colleagues through the now legendary Voice Center,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer for VUMC and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I want to express my appreciation to Bob for his numerous contributions to the Medical Center and wish him the very best in retirement.”

Since its opening, the Vanderbilt Voice Center has assisted a former U.S. president, national news broadcasters, internationally renowned artists and opera singers, stars of Broadway musicals, radio and television personalities, and many other patients whose voices are their livelihood, including teachers, attorneys and ministers.

“Bob and his team arrived with no preceding Otolaryngology Department at Vanderbilt and built an incredibly strong foundation in a remarkably rapid timeline,” said Roland Eavey, MD, Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. “He is a famous surgical innovator. He has a following of extremely famous patients with challenging conditions as well as unknown patients with routine conditions, and all were treated equally with his special touch.”

In 1991, Larry Gatlin of the award-winning vocal group The Gatlin Brothers, spoke at the Center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony after claiming a surgery performed by Ossoff saved his voice.

“Dr. Ossoff saved my career on four different occasions,” Gatlin said in a video created for Ossoff’s retirement celebration, which was held Nov. 3. “God forbid I ever need vocal cord surgery again, but if I do, you’re coming out of retirement.”

To Gaelyn Garrett, MD, senior executive director of the Vanderbilt Voice Center and one of Ossoff’s early fellows, his greatest achievement stems from helping to develop laryngology as a nationally recognized subspecialty.

“To me, if I have to look at the greatest legacy of his, it’s having some influence on probably at least a third of all laryngology fellowships in existence,” said Garrett. “I feel very proud that I’ve been a part of that for all these years. He’s somebody who clearly had an amazing vision, and he knew how to bring people in to help make that vision come alive. That’s a gift.”

Ossoff said his efforts were only made possible by the people who joined in his vision.

“It hasn’t been about me. It’s been about helping others to overachieve — to leave their experience at Vanderbilt with all the tools they need to be superstars. It’s been about helping the faculty to advance and achieve their regional and national leadership positions. It’s been about trying to set the goals for the residents and fellows. And even our students — trying to get them to be excited about our specialty and be successful regardless of where they go. It’s kind of been a process of branding — the brand being Vanderbilt Otolaryngology — and trying to make that an international brand,” said Ossoff.

“The credit I take as an individual is just listening to faculty and being blessed with good people. None of this would’ve happened without the other founders, or the first resident, or the first laryngology fellow. People had to buy into this vision and then come join me and promote it.”

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