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"You never had to tell him how to do something more than once," Pilkerton recalls. "And Dave always, in school, if he didn't get a 100, he was upset; I heard stories from his mom and his sister how he could get so upset if he came home with a 99. He strove to get straight As. Anything he's ever set out to do, I've always known him to do the absolute best that could be done at it."
Opperman did so well at pyrotechnics that he launched his own outfit, Flash Point Entertainment (he still runs the company), and co-authored a book on proximate pyrotechnics safety with Pilkerton.
But as much as he liked blowing things up, Opperman was even more interested in medicine — which is why he was so excited to meet Reifman and hear about his work with musicians. Opperman had noticed that many performers and crew members were experiencing problems that seemed to be directly associated with their exposure to pyrotechnics, and he was perplexed that no one was studying the long-term effects. Meeting Reifman was fortuitous.
Reifman's support and encouragement ultimately convinced the pyrotechnics kid to go to medical school.
"I called him like two weeks later," Opperman remembers, "and said, 'I have this interest, and I really need to talk to you.' So he grasped on to me and got me doing research in voice and pushed me all the way through until I got into medical school and started working with, basically, the fathers of voice in the country."
First, Reifman steered him toward the Wilbur James Gould Research Center, then a division of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Gould, who passed away in 1994, was a pioneer of vocal research; a revered otolaryngologist, he'd treated many of the world's top entertainers and dignitaries, including President Lyndon B. Johnson. With the experience he gained from Gould, Opperman had no problem getting into Tufts University, where he completed his undergrad schooling. "He had more training than anybody in the whole business," Reifman declares. "He was already there at 21."
Gould had been a mentor of Dr. Bob Sataloff, who returned the favor and mentored Opperman when he enrolled at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. And even before Opperman finished med school, Sataloff asked him to pen a chapter for a new textbook, Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care. After receiving numerous inquiries from performers he'd been treating (Sataloff himself was an accomplished opera singer), the doctor realized he needed a section on the medical implications of pyrotechnics — and he knew that Opperman could write that section from firsthand experience.
After earning his medical degree from Jefferson, Opperman moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he studied under George Goding, another respected physician in the voice-medicine field, and completed his residency. He also became board-certified in Minnesota and obtained his masters in otolaryngology. From there, Opperman went to the University of California, Los Angeles, on a fellowship, where he studied with Gerald Berke — the same Gerald Berke who'd played guitar in the Looking Glass.
Through the grueling schedule of his advanced education, friends like Reifman and Pilkerton continued to offer Opperman encouragement.
"I was doing the pyrotechnics stuff simultaneously, so I was trying to do everything," Opperman remembers. "And that was my initial love. The pyro world is what really drew me into everything. So I had to give up doing that for a while. It was hard to be a pyrotechnician and a doctor simultaneously. So they encouraged me not to give up and to keep fighting to get through the process."
"When Dave was doing his residency, he called me one night, and he's like, 'I can't take it anymore. These long hours are driving me crazy; I'm ready to quit,'" recalls Pilkerton, who'd become good friends with Opperman's parents before his father passed away. "I said, 'I'm going to tell you one thing. You've got two choices: You can either tough it out and finish school, or you can find a good surgeon.' He said, 'What do I need a surgeon for?' I said, 'If I have to come out there and put my foot in your rear, you're going to finish this out, because I promised your dad.'"
And that wasn't the only promise that would be kept. Years earlier, Opperman had talked with Reifman about opening their own practice in Denver, one geared specifically toward treating entertainers. Now, as his fellowship with Berke was coming to a close, Opperman was getting serious about that idea.
"I got this call three years ago," Reifman remembers. "I'm 61 now, and I thought back then, to start a new project now.... But I said we would do this fifteen years ago. So I said, 'Let's go along for the ride.'"
Bolstered by Reifman's endorsement of the plan, Opperman took advantage of the fact that he was still living in Los Angeles, the heart of the entertainment world, and presented his clinic concept to physicians and promoters alike. "I said, 'How about Denver for a satellite clinic designed around your industry?'" he recalls. "Everyone said, 'We'd love it, but nobody can do it. Nobody has the contacts in the special-effects or the music world to link it to a medical practice.'"