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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Human Touch : To the world, he's a renowned burn specialist. To some former colleagues, he's an imperious 'god.' But to his patients, Dr. Dick Grossman is a healer of mind and body.

December 17, 1995|SCOTT HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The anesthesia had worn off and once again 9-year-old Ryan Wilson could feel the pain.

"It hurts! It hurts!"

His doctor happened to be walking by. Earlier that morning, Dr. A. Richard Grossman and three other surgeons had huddled over Ryan in the operating room at Sherman Oaks Hospital, taking scalpels to the discolored flesh of his left arm and leg, searching for hope that the limbs could be saved.

A few days had passed since Ryan somehow got inside a Southern California Edison substation near his Santa Barbara County home and touched something he shouldn't have. About 16,000 volts of electricity entered his hand and coursed through his arm, torso and leg before exiting his foot. Ryan was lucky to be alive. His arm and leg were burned from the inside out.

After surgery, the boy's parents were stoic as Grossman gave his report in quiet tones: Ryan's leg would have to be amputated below the knee. Not unlike that from a high-velocity gunshot, the exit wound of electrocution is worse than the entry. The prognosis on the arm was unclear; amputation remained a distinct possibility.

"It hurts! It hurts!"

Grossman stepped into Ryan's room. "Where does it hurt?" he asked. In soothing tones he talked to Ryan as a nurse added painkiller to the IV. Very soon the boy became groggy.

On Ryan's right index finger, a sensor glowed red with each heartbeat. A pulse oximeter measures oxygen levels in blood. But it reminded Ryan of something else. "E.T., phone home," he murmured, extending his glowing fingertip.

The doctor touched his finger to Ryan's. Then the boy drifted off to sleep.

*

This is a story about one of Los Angeles' most storied physicians. Dr. Alan Richard Grossman, 62, is a burn specialist of international renown. "He's certainly had a long and illustrious career," says Dr. Bruce Zawacki, director of the respected burn unit at County-USC Medical Center.

Grossman's got the touch, all right. The healing touch, the golden touch, just the right touch with the media. It's easy to imagine physicians throughout Southern California scanning their Sunday papers and thinking, sheesh, another story on Dick Grossman?

This year, Grossman--"Dr. G" to his staff and patients--has even become a brand name of sorts. In June, the unit he founded 25 years ago was renamed the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. And earlier this year, a second Grossman Burn Center opened at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim. When the head nurse there recently proffered a press kit, Grossman couldn't resist a sly joke. "What's a press kit?" he asked with a grin.

Grossman will also proudly remember 1995 as the year "Dr. Peter" joined his burn center team. Peter Grossman, 32, says he knew as a child, following his father on rounds, that he wanted to be a doctor.

"I would see the look in his patients' eyes, and just the way they said, 'thank you' to him," Peter Grossman recalls, "and I thought, you know, that's what I want to do."

Now, father is also grooming son in the art of the news conference. If there's a knock against Dick Grossman, it's from doctors who say he shamelessly courts publicity.

But, as often as not, the media seek out Grossman. When Richard Pryor set himself afire years ago while lighting a crack pipe, Grossman was his doctor. When wildfires raged in the hills above Malibu, victims were helicoptered to the burn center. When a car accident claimed the family of 13-year-old Rosie Garcia's family and left her severely burned, the media came. When a triathlete was successfully treated for a flesh-eating bacteria, they came again.

And then there's the tale of Bimbo the dog.

Badly burned when a gas main ruptured during the Northridge earthquake, Bimbo was taken to a Studio City veterinarian, who in turn sought out Grossman. With the dog's kidneys failing, Grossman arranged for a KNX-AM (1070) chopper to fly Bimbo to the UC Davis veterinary school for dialysis.

It was a PR coup for the burn center and the radio station. Still, Bimbo died. Grossman now says euthanasia would have been wiser, but the dog's owner sent a letter of gratitude just the same.

Grossman traces his fixation on the plight of burn patients to a stark tragedy early in his career. A native of Miami and graduate of Emory University, he was working in the emergency room of Chicago's Cook County Hospital in 1958 when a fire trapped students inside Our Lady of Angels Elementary School. That December day, he counted 98 dead children.

Back then, burn care was in the dark ages. Zawacki says severe burn cases "were turned over to the youngest and least experienced surgeons" because patients had little hope for survival. "They died. They bled a lot. It was a terrible experience and there wasn't a lot doctors could do."

Not until the 1960s, after the Army Institute of Surgical Research and the Shrine Burn Institute committed funding for new surgical techniques, did burn care bloom as a specialty. Both Grossman and Zawacki have been at the forefront of advances over the last 30 years.

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