James C. Giuffre, 78, Physician Who Headed N. Phila. Hospital, Dies

Posted: April 27, 1990

James C. Giuffre, 78, who was "surgeon to the stars" and physician to thousands of Philadelphians, including many who could not afford to pay for medical care, died yesterday afternoon at his residence in the Warwick Hotel in Center City.

A spokesman for the Girard Medical Center, which Dr. Giuffre headed for many years and was once named for him, attributed the death to cardiac complications.

"I knew him well, and he was a fine doctor, a very good human being," said former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, who was a longtime friend of the doctor's and appointed him to head the Philadelphia Hospitals Authority.

Dr. Giuffre - "the little doc" to his friends - essentially controlled the hospital at Eighth Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia for 40 years. The hospital, which started as St. Luke's and Children's Medical Center and is now known as Girard Medical Center, was the James C. Giuffre Medical Center from 1978 until 1988.

A graduate of La Salle College, Dr. Giuffre received his medical degree

from Hahnemann Medical College in 1939 and did postgraduate surgery studies at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a medical resident at St Luke's in 1940. In the mid-1940s, he and other doctors at the hospital mounted a campaign to save it from some serious administrative difficulties, and he became its medical director in 1948.

He rose through the ranks medically and administratively, and in 1978, when he was 65, the 101-year-old hospital was renamed in his honor.

At that time, the hospital had 50 beds devoted to alcohol detoxification and 25 beds for drug cases, along with 250 outpatients who were in methadone programs. It was not unusual for Dr. Giuffre, who needed little sleep, to work 20 hours a day. He once performed 21 operations in a single day and said he did an appendectomy in 11 minutes and a gallbladder operation in 15.

"My work is my relaxation," he said in a 1967 interview. "I take out a stomach and a couple of gallbladders and I get more satisfaction than knocking around a golf course."

Ten years later, however, under a new board of directors, he was ousted under a cloud after the state Health Department cited the hospital for serious lapses in the quality of patient care. The department placed much of the responsibility for these lapses on Dr. Giuffre, to whom the board had relinquished control.

The investigation, prompted by the anonymous written complaints of nurses and others employed at the hospital, found practices that "resulted in medical care which threatened the health and safety of patients through questionable surgical practices such as unnecessary surgery and a high rate of complications, some with untoward results."

The hospital was ordered to close its emergency room and stop performing surgery until the practices were corrected.

Dr. Giuffre did not respond publicly to the allegations. A family friend, Mike Goffredo, said last night that he could not accept being forced out of a hospital where he virtually lived.

"He just couldn't figure out why," Goffredo said. "That's something he always asked. He was a very proud individual. He didn't understand why."

Born in South Philadelphia, where his mother ran a candy store and his father was a Republican committeeman, Dr. Giuffre had friends from all walks of life.

He was both the doctor and friend of celebrities, including show-biz stars Joey Bishop, Eddie Fisher, Jerry Vale, Bobby Rydell, Vic Damone and Al Martino, and former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier. He once sent a reporter autographed X-rays of Damone's gallbladder with a note attached: ''Don't gall us, we'll gall you." For many years, he was a weekly golf partner of Rydell's.

But in the midst of famous names, his own was often mispronounced, and he was a stickler about people getting it right.

"That's pronouced Jew-FRAY," he said in an interview in 1978 after the hospital was named for him. "Not Gweefer and Groffer or Joffrey. And there's an accent on the E."

But along with the celebrities, he treated the downtrodden, describing the hospital's area as "1,000 square blocks of misery, trouble, poverty and fear" and naming its many victims of violence "our Knife and Gun Club."

For years he was a fixture at Las Vegas nightclubs and at Palumbo's nightclub in Philadelphia. For a while, deciding that he wanted even more of a show-biz image, he drove a Rolls-Royce "until I figured out what a rotten car it was. It was always breaking down." So he switched to a chauffeur-driven Cadillac.

While he seldom drank, Dr. Giuffre was a heavy cigarette smoker, and it was his smoking, he said, that accounted for his raspy voice.

Goffredo said Dr. Giuffre was stricken with a heart attack on Columbus Day and spent about three days in Hahnemann University Hospital before insisting on going home, to the round-the-clock care of a private nurse. His daughter, Adrienne, also a surgeon, was with him when he died at 4:35 p.m. yesterday.

There was nothing that could keep Dr. Giuffre from his patients, Goffredo said. "He would get beeped and he would leave for the hospital in the first inning of a game. One time, Steve Carlton (the former Phillies great) was pitching and he was going for a strikeout record. He got beeped and left the ball game in the fourth inning and went to the hospital. . . . I had to ask him one time, 'How could you go from eating lobster to cutting open a woman?' He said, 'Mike, that's what I'm here for.' "

Surviving Dr. Giuffre are daughters Adrienne and Camille.

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