Ted Friehling´s pager began vibrating about 9 p.m., and the cardiologist headed for the nearest phone. A young man´s heart was beating way too fast, so Friehling arranged for a helicopter to whisk the patient to Fairfax Hospital. Then he rushed off to break the news to the other doctors in his group.
"We´ve got a problem," he told the cardiologists gathered around him. "We only have time for two more songs."
By day, they are doctors at Fairfax Hospital´s bustling heart center. But by night - except when they´re paged - they shed their lab coats and scrubs and transform themselves into the rock group known as OffTrax.
In less than a year, OffTrax has become the hottest new rock group in Washington´s medical community. Okay, it´s probably the only rock group in Washington´s medical community. But it´s arguably one of the most highly educated rock groups in America.
Four of the band members - Albert DelNegro, 53, on keyboard, and Friehling, 45, Aldo Esposito, 42, and Bryan Raybuck, 43, on guitars - have medical degrees. They spend the days performing radiofrequency catheter ablations and giving talks on such topics as "Management of Malignant Rhythm Disturbances".
But when they´re playing "Mustang Sally" or "Knockin´ on Heaven´s Door," the members of this middle-aged rock group look and sound a lot like some of their younger counterparts. Most of them wear faded blue jeans and black T-shirts. Some sport shoulder-length hair. They play their music so loud that they have to set their pagers on vibrate mode.
The drummer, Glen Schuster, 45, is also in the medical field. He sells pacemakers.
"Because these guys are all customers I didn´t have much choice," Schuster said. I knew if they asked me, I was going to play. But it was a delight, because they´re good."
Since their debut a year ago at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Reston for the Cultural Heart Cuisine, an annual benefit for the hospital heart center, the rock docs have soared to the top of hospital charts. They´ve played at a number of charity concerts, including benefits for AIDS research at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg and a breast cancer fundraiser at the Mid-Pike Plaza in Rockville. They´re already booked for every weekend in December.
"They´re wonderful; they keep the dance floor crowded," said Paula Graling, 36, an operating-room nurse who heard OffTrax at a benefit last month. "You´d never know they were docs. You would think they had been doing this all their lives."
The band formed a little more than a year ago after Fairfax Hospital administrators heard that some of their cardiologists were accomplished musicians and invited them to play at the benefit in Reston.
The doctors had only a few months to practice but much experience on which to draw, having worked their way through high school and college in bands with names like the Bagels and the Subdued Happy.
"I don´t think of ourselves as doctors playing music," Esposito said. "I consider ourselves musicians who went to medical school. The music came first."
Friehling got his first nylon-string guitar with Plaid stamps. "You know, you had to save up books," he said.
Schuster´s mother made him play the accordion. He hated the accordion, but she liked Lawrence Welk. "I think I probably took up the drums for revenge," he said.
As OffTrax began to jell as a group, the biggest challenge for band members was getting DelNegro, their keyboard player, to loosen up. The coat and tie had to go. Trained as a classical pianist, he was not familiar with singers like Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne of Eric Clapton. "I was real nerd in high school and college," he said. "I listened to Beethoven."
But DelNegro came around, even started rolling up his shirt sleeves. He endured the loud rehearsals
by wearing earplugs. He donned a stick-on diamond earring.
They needed a singer, of course, so Friehling enlisted a friend from New York, Stacy Cohen, who had been in one of his bands growing up. Friehling´s three sons became the band´s roadies. And, with the benefit fast approaching, they needed a name.
They settled on OffTrax, in part because they were veering off track from their professional lives. They rejected names like the Pacemakers and Pulse because they didn´t want to be viewed as a novelty act. They were serious about their music, even if some others were skeptical.
"My wife thinks it´s a midlife crisis," Raybuck said. "My 9-year-old thinks my hair´s too long and that I should color it because it´s gray."
When their big night arrived, the doctors feared they would sound amateurish. But soon toes were tapping. Hearts were thumping.
"They didn´t want us to stop, but we were running kind of low on songs," Friehling said. "We kind of played them a little longer to kind of extend it."
As it turned out, the Cultural Heart Cuisine was no one-night stand. The "musical cardiologists," as they are being billed, will be back by popular demand at the same benefit Thursday night.
Although it is a challenge to rehearse with pagers constantly going off, with lectures to give and with soccer games to attend, they plan to stick together and may get an agent. Playing in a band has become a soothing balm for their often-stressful everyday lives. Sometimes, they pipe their music right into the operating room.
For this rock group, timing is everything. On the night he was paged in the basement of his Great Falls house, Friehling was able to help the young man with the heart rhythm problems and rehearse two more songs.
"We timed it perfectly," Friehling said. "I got to Fairfax Hospital as the patient was landing."
Patricia Davis, Washington Post Staff Writer