By Alex Williams/The New York Times
When Dr. David Colbert, a former emergency room doctor, went to Haiti to help treat the injured after the earthquake in January, the most potent medical tool in his duffel bag was arguably not the surgical scissors, gauze, rubber gloves or antibiotics. It was his BlackBerry.
Dr. Colbert, after all, is popping up more and more in New York gossip columns. He runs a prominent dermatology practice in the Flatiron district with a large celebrity clientele, and counts people like Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams as friends. So even after all those 12-hour days spent stitching sutures in the field, the biggest service he could provide might have come when the work was over: sending text messages to his network of prominent friends, seeking help.
“All I had to do was tell them, ‘It’s really hard down here, we need help!’ ” Dr. Colbert, 51, recalled. “It was like a picture from one of those old movies, where they have a switchboard and the lights started lighting up all over. All of a sudden people are calling from all over the world.”
The result was a new charity, NYDG Foundation, named after his practice, the New York Dermatology Group. The organization held its first fund-raiser, NYDG Foundation: Rx Haiti, on May 6, on a SoHo rooftop, with the hosts including the fashion designer L’Wren Scott and her boyfriend, Mick Jagger; Ms. Watts, and Ms. Weisz. It raised nearly $500,000 to buy prosthetics for amputees in the country.
Almost instantly, Dr. Colbert — a Dubuque, Iowa, native who is already a go-to dermatologist on Hollywood sets — had a new second career: power fund-raiser on the city’s charity circuit.
It’s not unusual, of course, for celebrity doctors to trade on their associations with the famous to boost their market share. Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oprah’s physician sidekick who became a best-selling health author, comes to mind. And while Dr. Colbert is not entirely above the practice (his friends Amy Sedaris and Edie Falco wrote the blurbs for his recent book about nutrition and skin care, “The High School Reunion Diet”), he is also making a move to leverage his friendships with the famous to do good.
“I could call my sister in Iowa to help, and she could do something, but it’s not the same global reach that celebrities have,” the soft-spoken Dr. Colbert explained.
Touring the 11,000-square-foot offices of his practice, it’s not hard to see why Dr. Colbert, in a city of social strivers, might have actually been among the few allowed into New York’s haute creative circles. He positions himself as an aesthete as well as a man of science. “I’m very visual. I love art, I paint,” Dr. Colbert said.
“Dermatology has always been about visuals,” he added. “It’s always been a renaissance man’s job in medicine.”
Wearing jeans and an untucked Paul Smith shirt, Dr. Colbert walked through his gallery-like office with the weightless gait of a dancer (he moved to New York in 1983 to study with the Joffrey II dance company, before deciding on medical school). He paused to point out the 16-foot windows that flood the space with natural light — perfect for showing off the original works by artists like Marcel Dzama and Shawn Dulaney that hang above machines used for laser toning and rejuvenation, and perfect for inspecting blemishes, he said. “You can’t really see someone’s skin in fake light,” he said. “I wouldn’t buy a painting that way.”
Dr. Colbert’s practice is becoming something of a small empire, with a chief executive officer (his partner, J. P. Van Laere), four other doctors, a former Wall Street trader running the foundation full time, and a new line of skin care products, called Colbert M.D., for sale at Barneys New York.
Like many New York success stories, Dr. Colbert’s rise has involved a skillful use of connections not usually available to a son of a high school basketball coach from Iowa.
His sister, Lisa, is married to Todd Hallowell, a producer who has worked on Ron Howard’s films for years, and invited the doctor to touch up an actor on the set of “A Beautiful Mind.” Before long, Dr. Colbert was getting calls from other producers to show up on sets at 5 a.m. for pre-shoot skin consultations. Eventually, celebrity sightings at his office started popping up on Page Six.
But the doctor shudders at the suggestion that he collects famous friends like some people collect Depression glass.
“I don’t like the word famous,” he said. “I have many friends who are wonderful people. Some of them just happen to be on TV.”
In fact, he met many of his prominent friends before they were famous. He said he met Ms. Sedaris, for instance, when he was still a dancer living in the East Village and she was a waitress at the downtown restaurant Marion’s Continental. He got to know Paul Auster, he said, because he was seated next to Mr. Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, at a PEN literary gala. Midway through dinner, they realized they had met years earlier, when she had been a resident assistant at his undergraduate dorm at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Dr. Colbert chalks it all up to serendipity. “Things happen, you meet people,” he said, adding, “If you’re on the same wavelength, you do things together.”
Photo: Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times