On the road with the Boston Symphony Orchestra


In any concert hall, there is the stage, the auditorium and, tucked in the back, a doctor's office. On occasion, in venues that include La Scala in Milan and the Berlin Philharmonie, Robert Partridge, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Emerson, inhabits that office.

Since 2013, Dr. Partridge (at right in picture) has served as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's (BSO) physician during their overseas tours. "I'm there to keep them healthy so that they can play and do their best," he explains. "An important goal is to keep the group together. They don't want a musician to be in the hospital — and have to leave them behind — when the tour is heading to the next city."

This past summer, the BSO, which is conducted by Andris Nelsons, traveled on a highly anticipated two-week European tour: London, Saltzburg, Vienna, Lucerne, Milan, Paris, Cologne and Berlin. Dr. Partridge also accompanied the orchestra on its 2014 tour in Asia. The orchestra members are his main focus, but he also cares for the BSO staff and family members. "We're like a small town with a population of about 200 people," he notes.

He says that emergency medicine expertise is the right fit when a large group is on the road, and anything can occur — colds, flu, GI distress and injuries. "In the Emerson Emergency Department, we see a wide range of patients and every situation you can imagine," says Dr. Partridge. "We're used to making a rapid diagnosis, deciding if a patient needs to see a specialist and acting fast when we need to. Also, we can perform various procedures, such as sutures."

Applying skin glue and managing fluids

Hand problems are quite common in musicians, and Dr. Partridge is ready. "Musicians often form calluses on their playing fingers," he says. "Those calluses can suddenly crack open, bleed and cause pain. It's surprising how often this comes up."

He keeps skin glue handy. "A bandage won't stay on; it interferes with a musician's ability to play," he says, noting that a carefully applied dab of glue can put someone back in the orchestra in no time. "The other category of hand problems is repetitive motion issues. I'm prepared for those as well."

Upper respiratory infections and viruses are predictable when a group is traveling together on planes. "If one person catches something, it's difficult to stop the spread." But he tries, he says.

While a performance is underway, he sits with the audience if the BSO has an extra ticket, but he races back to the doctor's office during intermission. "The musicians often need something in the middle of a concert — medication for a headache or allergy and sometimes wound care," he says.

Touring with the BSO is unpredictable. "Things can change in a second, just like in the Emergency Department," Dr. Partridge says. "More than once, I've been called to see a musician who is sick and has been throwing up all night. After they tell me they don't think they can get on the flight later that day, I proceed to fix them up by giving them medicine and managing their fluids appropriately, and they're able to travel and play that evening.

"I feel fortunate to have this position with the BSO," he adds. "I enjoy being a physician, I enjoy traveling, and it's rewarding to be useful to a world-class orchestra."

Dr. Partridge says he loves all kinds of music, including classical music. "I've developed an appreciation for how the maestro and musicians interpret the nuances of a piece to bring out what the composer intended people to hear."

Next up: a May tour with stops in Austria and Germany. "It's a fantastic group of people," says Dr. Partridge. "I'm in awe of what they do."