Dr. A. Richard Grossman, a renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeon who four decades ago pioneered the comprehensive care of burn patients in Sherman Oaks and established what became the nation’s largest private burn-treatment center, has died. He was 81.
Grossman, who had been the center’s longtime medical director, died suddenly Thursday at home in Thousand Oaks, said his wife, Elizabeth Rice Grossman. The cause of death has not been determined. He had a successful kidney transplant about three years ago.
When Grossman arrived at Sherman Oaks Hospital in the late 1960s, he persuaded administrators to set aside two beds for burn patients. By 1978, the ward had expanded to 30 beds, larger than any other private facility devoted to burn care.
On the facility’s 25th anniversary in 1995, it was named the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital in honor of the surgeon who pioneered its cutting-edge care.
After 40 years in Sherman Oaks, the center relocated to West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in 2010. Grossman Burn Centers also have been established in Bakersfield, Phoenix and Kansas City, Mo.
“Dr. G” — as patients and colleagues called him — traced his fierce dedication to burn victims to a 1958 fire that trapped students inside a parochial school in Chicago. He was an emergency room doctor at the city’s Cook County Hospital.
“I had to count 98 children, all suffocated or burned to death. The catastrophe indelibly stayed in my mind,” Grossman said in a 1992 Times interview.
At the time of the Chicago tragedy, not much could be done for victims of severe burns. As new techniques were developed, Grossman stayed abreast of advances. The work wasn’t “pretty,” Grossman often said, but it was “addictive.”
When he struggled to explain the appeal of the specialty to a Times reporter in 1985, he simply said: “You develop a skill and you want to use it.”
Yet he described his work schedule as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” existence. In private practice, he did profitable elective cosmetic surgeries in the morning “that made people feel good about themselves.” At the hospital in the afternoon, he often dealt with grisly, life-threatening burn cases.
One of Grossman’s more celebrated patients was comedian Richard Pryor, who spent six weeks at the center in 1980 after suffering third-degree burns over 50% of his body in a fire at his home.
Grossman was more likely to treat less-famous newsmakers such as firefighters injured in local wildfires or airplane crash survivors flown in from Taiwan. In news reports, grateful parents would speak of him as a magician — about a third of the center’s nearly 400 patients a year were children.
His son, Dr. Peter H. Grossman, who joined the center in 1995 and is now medical director, once told The Times that if he could have only one of his father’s skills, it would be the rapport he had with patients.
Jonathan Simons, a psychologist who has counseled many of the center’s patients, told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 2001 that Grossman “could write a book on bedside manner.”
“Grossman approaches his work as his destiny, and the feeling is contagious,” the burn center’s Dr. Matt Young once said. “The reason we love our work and love Dr. G is because it is rare in life to do something that you feel is your destiny.”
Alan Richard Grossman was born Jan. 12, 1933, in Hillside, N.J., on a truck farm that was his family’s country retreat. His father had an office-machine business.
At 12, Grossman moved to Miami with his family and later said he grew up wanting to be a doctor. His two brothers also became doctors.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Emory University in Atlanta, Grossman earned a medical degree from the University of Tennessee. He did his internship and residency at Cook County, a public urban teaching hospital that Grossman, a confessed workaholic, credited with helping to develop his work ethic.
His casual gait was at odds with his hectic work pace. In a 1985 Times interview, Grossman said his first two wives grew tired of “playing mistress to a job.” His first three marriages ended in divorce.
Release from the stress came in the form of a 63-acre estate he named Brookfield Farms in Ventura County’s Hidden Valley. He bought the oak-studded land in the 1970s after he had a health scare at 40.
Being on the working ranch allowed him to regenerate, Grossman said, as he grew vegetables, bred cattle and once raised a 700-pound pig. He had homes in Hawaii and the Tahoe area, but the ranch was his primary residence. He retired in January 2013.
In fall 1993, as Malibu wildfires threatened his ranch house, Grossman was standing guard in Sherman Oaks, helping to treat four firefighters injured in the first wave of firestorms.
In addition to Elizabeth, his wife of 14 years, and his son Peter, Grossman is survived by son Jeffrey, of New York; stepson John Larson, of Larkspur; brothers Joel and Jack Grossman, both of Miami; and five grandchildren.
Times staff writer David Colker contributed to this report. Nelson is a former Times staff writer.