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He knew something was gravely wrong when he tasted the blood in the back of his throat. He'd been forcing out sounds for nearly an hour, his voice becoming more and more hoarse, each individual word feeling like it was wrapped in barbed wire and dipped in rubbing alcohol. Finally, the audible tones devolved into an amorphous hiss of air. That's when he tasted the blood.
A practicing attorney for the better part of three decades, Jim Evans needs to be able to talk to make a living — both in court and in the classroom. He'd been having problems with his voice for nearly twenty years, but this last episode, in front of an office full of students and explained away as a slight case of laryngitis, was markedly different. "I had this severe, stinging pain," he recalls. "It was like a muscle cramp in my throat. I'd be talking, and all of a sudden nothing would come out. Air would come out, but nothing else. I felt absolutely panicked and desperate."
Almost twenty years earlier, when he first began experiencing persistent, nagging laryngeal problems, Evans had undergone surgery to have a granuloma — essentially an ulcer — removed from his vocal folds. "Within weeks, it had grown back," Evans remembers. "The procedure then, with another ENT I followed up with, was simply to try to go into voice therapy when the granuloma came back." But despite seeing a succession of speech therapists and other ear, nose and throat specialists over the years, nothing seemed to help.
Alarmed by the blood-tasting incident, he tried yet another doctor, one who specialized in treating cancer patients — and who seemed very concerned over the condition of Evans's granuloma. "Without saying the C word, I knew exactly what he was talking about," Evans says. "'I'm not the one who probably should do this,' he said. 'You need to go see this Dr. Opperman. He's very specialized in this area, and he'll take a look at it.' I'd never quite gotten that reaction from other doctors. And I'd been under the care of a doctor since my initial problem in '91."
So Evans wasted no time looking up Dr. David Opperman. He found him at the Colorado Voice Clinic, which Opperman had started with colleague William "Buzz" Reifman, a nurse practitioner/physician's assistant with more than thirty years' experience, in late 2007. It was the culmination of a longtime dream for the two friends — and the unlikely result of their shared love for working behind-the-scenes at concerts.
David Opperman was just a teenager in 1989, in the midst of a special-effects apprenticeship, when he first met Buzz Reifman. By then, Reifman had been working for years under Dr. Paul Dragul and had a well-established reputation as the go-to guy who'd make house calls in green rooms across Denver. Area promoters had him on speed-dial, and called whenever a singer's voice gave out or a bandmember seemed to be suffering the effects of the Mile High altitude. And Reifman didn't just treat renowned entertainers; he also helped countless Country Dinner Playhouse actors, techs, waiters, waitresses and just about anybody else who required his care.
Just about everybody on the local entertainment scene knew "Buzz," as he's better known.
Everybody but Opperman. "I was backstage at Metallica," Opperman recalls, "looking like I do now, mixed in with a roomful of black leather and chains, and this guy walks in wearing a suit. Both of us didn't fit in the room, so he came up to me and said, 'What are you doing here?' And so I told him who I was and said, 'Well, what are you doing here?' And he said, 'That doesn't matter.' He wouldn't tell me who he was. But we talked for like an hour and a half, and then he left. It turns out he ran out and talked to Peter Cappadocia, the pyro guy I was working under, and found out who I was. And while he was going to check on me, I went to production to check on him."
Opperman's background was easy to check out. He'd landed the special-effects gig through his association with Guy Cooper, a local paintball manufacturer. Cooper had tapped the teenager, an avid paintball enthusiast, to help build guns and play with them — sort of like a one-man focus group. From there, the teen had become a member of a team that traveled the country playing paintball tournaments. At one point, Opperman was asked to set up a private game, something low-key where the players could just hang out and have fun. Little did he know that the players were all touring with AC/DC.
Through the game, Opperman became friendly with Cappadocia, the band's pyrotechnician, who took a liking to the precocious kid. And before Opperman had even enrolled for his freshman year at Columbine High School, Cappadocia had gotten permission from his father to train him in concert pyrotechnics. That experience helped Opperman land a contract with Elitch Gardens one summer, when he asked another friend he'd met at a pyrotechnics convention, Francis "Pinky" Pilkerton, to lend a hand with the wiring and the music cues.