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L.A. firefighters pay tribute to burn treatment pioneer

Human InterestLos Angeles Fire DepartmentLos Angeles County Fire Department

In so many ways, the paths of Dr. A. Richard Grossman and firefighters crossed.

When firefighters pulled badly burned people out of the flames, they took them straight to Grossman, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who pioneered the comprehensive care of burn patients. When the firefighters themselves were burned on the job, they went to him too.

On Sunday, hundreds of uniformed firefighters, nurses and former patients gathered beneath the burning flame of the Los Angeles Fire Department's Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Hollywood to honor the doctor's life.

"Although Dr. Grossman didn't wear a badge, and he wasn't a first responder, he joined our mission from a different path," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby.

Grossman, who died last month at age 81, established what the Grossman Burn Center, a group of treatment centers which has its flagship facility at West Hills Hospital & Medical Center.

Outside Sunday's ceremony, baskets of Twinkies and gumballs, said to be Grossman's favorites, greeted guests. The sound of bagpipes cut the air as a procession of honor guards walked beneath a flag draped between two firetruck ladders extended in Grossman's honor.

In emotional speeches, firefighters recalled that "Dr. G." kept candy in his pockets, shared the "infamous" meals with firefighters at their stations and helped burn victims with their mental healing as much as their physical healing.

In 1996, Bill Jensen, a Glendale fireman, was battling a Malibu brushfire when flames overtook his crew. Jensen suffered third-degree burns on 73% of his body. He was flown to Grossman Burn Center, put into a drug-induced coma and "woke up about six weeks later to a man standing next to me telling me what he was going to do and everything was going to be OK," he said.

"I loved that doctor, that man," Jensen said. "He not only restored the outside of the body, he knew how to restore the heart and the mind."

As another man spoke, the wail of fire engines responding to a call could be heard on Sunset Boulevard. Grossman in 1994 became the first physician to be named LAFD honorary fire chief.

His son, Dr. Peter H. Grossman, medical director of the Grossman Burn Centers, said his father's bedside manner made him special.

"It was his touch," Peter Grossman said, "not necessarily with gloves on in the operating room, but rather bare-skinned, on a knee, a toe, an elbow, of a patient at their bedside" through which Grossman "gave the gift of his simple touch of his hand on his patients and in return he achieved the significance that few are lucky enough to realize."

In the back of the audience, Karima Viquez smiled at the memory of the elder Grossman. Viquez was 13 when, in 1979, a kitchen fire erupted in her family's downtown Los Angeles home. She suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than 70% of her body, including her face and chest. He saved her life — but called his patients the heroes, she said.

Another survivor, named Sweetheart, had large burn scars on her legs and walked on a leash. Fifteen years ago, a group of Apple Valley teenagers poured gasoline on a stray dog and lit her aflame, burning 70% of her body, said her owner, Charlie Brugnola.

The veterinarian who saw her wasn't versed in treating burns. So he called Grossman, who walked him through how to treat the dog.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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