Longtime New Port Richey doctor's true practice is service

Tuesday morning, ambulances transferred the first patients to the sparkling new Medical Center of Trinity with all its bells and whistles.

Meanwhile, a few miles north on New Port Richey's Main Street, Dr. Frederick A. Grassin, 87, arrived for work at the 1,400-square-foot clinic he opened in 1961.

"It's functional,'' he said of the building with a red-brick front and tiny examination rooms. "It'll serve me for several more years.''

He means it.

Grassin's place in the medical history of Pasco County is secured. More on that later. But when patients ask him about retirement, he offers a one-word prescription: "Don't.''

His sees patients four days a week and takes Thursdays for "office work.'' His promise to keep working comforts patients like John Gallagher, the longtime county administrator, who credits Grassin with saving his life.

"I wouldn't be here if not for him,'' said Gallagher, 64, who started seeing Grassin at 14.

In 1982, Grassin diagnosed a small dark spot on Gallagher's chest as a deadly melanoma. A surgeon cut it out.

Tax Collector Mike Olson, 67, has been seeing Grassin since the mid-1960s. "He's more than a doctor to us,'' Olson said. "You can go talk to him anytime you need him. People really open up to him. I'm telling you, they threw away the mold when they made Fred Grassin.''

• • •

The first indication of that came during World War II. Grassin joined the Navy and found himself in one of the most remote places on Earth — Attu, in the westernmost Aleutian Islands about 1,200 miles off the Alaskan coast.

In heavy combat, U.S. forces eventually killed or captured the Japanese troops. Grassin narrowly escaped death when a Japanese soldier stabbed him in the abdomen with a bayonet.

After the fighting stopped, troops were left to endure frigid weather while trying to scrape the tundra to build airfields. Grassin recovered from his wound and longed for a more meaningful role.

"My mother always said when you need something, go to the top,'' he recalled.

He managed to get a letter off to James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy, who must have been impressed by the young sailor's moxie. Forrestal sent him orders for Officers Candidate School.

Shortly before the war ended, Grassin was called home to New York City. His father, who worked on bridges as a city employee, fell from atop the Manhattan Bridge and died. Grassin helped his mother adjust and then entered Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and earned a degree in chemistry and biology. He went on to graduate from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and joined a practice in Geneva, Ohio.

Grassin enjoyed the town, but he was sick of cold weather. He passed medical board exams in Florida in 1955 and answered an ad for a position in Dade City, where Dr. Wardell Stanfield had opened a 15-bed osteopathic hospital.

"We delivered at least one baby a day,'' Grassin recalled. "We had about 100 patients a day. For a small town, we were busy.''

But Grassin longed to be close to the Gulf of Mexico. After almost a year in Dade City, he rented an office in downtown New Port Richey, which had only two medical doctors and no osteopaths. "On my first day,'' he said, "we had 60 patients show up.''

Grassin had no office staff, so he asked a young woman he had just treated if she wanted a job. "She became my receptionist.''

He relied on the same hiring instinct in 1958 when a young woman named Dorothy Burnham came for an appointment. She worked for the only bank in town, Gulf State. He put her through nursing school. She stayed with him 52 years.

Now 83 and dividing her time between daughters in South Dakota and Florida, Burnham offers these words to describe her former boss: "Compassionate, responsible, dedicated, caring.

"He has a God-given talent for diagnoses.''

• • •

West Pasco Hospital opened in New Port Richey in 1965 but osteopaths were not allowed privileges. They endured discrimination from medical doctors who objected to the level of training and the practice of joint manipulation. Grassin admitted patients at the nearest osteopathic hospital in Largo.

"The cops all knew me,'' he said. "Sometimes I had to fly down U.S. 19 and they let me go. I could make it to the Clearwater intersection (now Gulf to Bay) in 20 minutes. The four corners then were just orange groves.''

Eventually the medical doctors softened their position on osteopaths. Niles Kinnunen, a recently retired dentist who began practicing in New Port Richey in 1964, credited Grassin with "breaking the barrier.'' Grassin even became chief of staff at the hospital, which today is Morton Plant North Bay.

Grassin served two terms on the City Council, beginning in 1966. In just his second meeting, he learned that Mayor Clair Kohler had ordered the destruction of the old humpback bridge on Main Street that crossed the Pithlachascotee River. Traffic from U.S. 19 into downtown would be cut off. Grassin said that was unacceptable.

Once again, he remembered his mother's advice: Go to the top.

He called newly elected Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, who said he couldn't help. Just the same, Grassin made an appointment to visit him in Tallahassee.

Then he made another call — to the White House.

The operator answered. "I want to talk to the president,'' Grassin said.

He swears this is true: Vice President Hubert Humphrey came on the line.

"I need a bridge,'' Grassin said, explaining his concerns that emergency vehicles wouldn't be able to get across the river.

Humphrey, after joking about whether Grassin was a "good Democrat,'' offered that he happened to be sitting next to the general in charge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"He said he'd call me back,'' Grassin recalled. "Twenty minutes later, the general calls back and says, 'I've got a Bailey bridge in Bradenton.' "

Troops arrived the next morning to begin installation of the prefabricated suspension bridge.

Grassin kept his 8:30 a.m. appointment with Gov. Kirk. "I just had to tell him face to face.''

• • •

In 1972, Grassin married Sue, a schoolteacher who today works at Schwettman Education Center. They had two children, Fred, a local endodontist, and Julie, an environmentalist.

He remains active beyond the practice of medicine, with hobbies including white-water rafting and cross-country skiing. He swims regularly.

"I have a lot of mileage left in me,'' he promises.

He watched with great interest this week as Community Hospital closed most of its operations and moved patients to the new Medical Center of Trinity. Grassin offered this little known fact: He and two local lawyers sold the land where Community was built in 1971. He had once anticipated possibly building an osteopathic hospital on that high ground.

"Turns out we didn't need to,'' he said.

The new hospital in Trinity "makes sense,'' he said. "It's part of the progress of this community. And New Port Richey still has North Bay, a very good hospital.''

Longtime New Port Richey doctor's true practice is service 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 1:42pm]

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