WHEN JOSEPH COFRANCESCO was getting his medical education—as a student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, an intern at Columbia Presbyterian, then a resident in primary care at Albert Einstein College of Medicine—the AIDS epidemic was raging. And at that time, New York was affected by the deadly disease more than any other city in America.
“In the late ’80s, when I was in training, AIDS was full-blown,” says Cofrancesco. “We heard stories about patients having their food trays left outside the door and nurses refusing to go in their rooms. Fortunately, I never witnessed that, but it was still a pretty frightening time— and there was no New York Times article for the first 100,000 dead. The president [Ronald Reagan] never even said the word ‘AIDS.’”
Mostly what Cofrancesco recalls of those days is the suffering he saw. “When I was in med school, everyone with AIDS died,” he says. “And when I was an intern, we had [the drug] AZT, which people took every four hours through the night, and made everyone sick. Patients lasted maybe six months, then got sick and died. People were dying all around, and no one seemed to care. It was awful.”
The disease, he says, left its mark not only professionally, but personally. “It was scary and really depressing,” he says. “You’re in New York, and you’re young and it’s fun. You go to parties and clubs, and then suddenly half of your cohorts die, and all of your weekends are spent going to memorial services.” Bearing witness to so much death in his early 30s gave the doctor a particular lens on life. “It made me keenly aware that these patients were my age and they were going to die,” he says. “It puts things in perspective in terms of how you approach the whole life cycle.”
In 2020, Cofrancesco would have to summon that perspective again, this time when dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, and a tragic loss that hit much closer to home.
COFRANCESCO HAS PACKED a lot into his 62 years. The second oldest of four boys, he was the first to attend college in his close-knit, Italian working-class family—and he has continued to distinguish himself ever since.
At The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he’s practiced and taught for more than 23 years, he has worn many hats, including working as an attending physician with expertise in general medicine and HIV care. In addition to seeing patients, he is the director of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Institute for Excellence in Education and a professor of medicine who works closely with medical students, residents, and fellows, and is known for his superior teaching skills.
Cofrancesco vividly remembers working that first day on the COVID unit, less than three weeks after losing his brother.
Despite his 26-page C.V. filled with impressive accomplishments (such as lecturing and teaching internationally, publishing countless pieces in leading medical journals, and earning dozens of awards), Cofrancesco, who is small in stature, has an easy laugh and immediate warmth and charm.
Those who know him—from colleagues to patients to friends— speak about him in superlatives and with genuine affection. (The family of one patient who passed away even presented him with a thankyou plaque at their loved one’s funeral.) He is affectionately known as “JoeCo” or “Dr. Joe” around the halls of the hospital.
“HE IS THE most amazing advocate to his patients and the most thorough doctor I’ve ever seen in my life,” says John Shields, the owner of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen and Cofrancesco’s longtime patient and friend. “Every patient gets the same amount of attention. I think that comes from him working in a war zone during the AIDS crisis and being this fierce advocate who was trying to save lives. Hopkins has so many doctors—and even there, he is a legend, a gifted doctor, and a gifted teacher.”
Randallstown resident Pat Goins-Johnson, both of whose parents Margaret, 90, and James, 87, have been Dr. Cofrancesco’s patients for 20 years, echoes that sentiment. “My mother has had quite a few medical issues,” she says, “and he’s right there on top of them. We couldn’t ask for a better doctor when it comes to taking care of my parents—he treats us like family members.”
Perhaps his most famous patient is eager to weigh in, too. “Dr. Cofrancesco is the perfect doctor,” says filmmaker John Waters. “He respects my privacy, relentlessly tests me for diseases I didn’t even know I could get, and skillfully looks deep inside my body with an intelligent medical curiosity I totally trust. On top of that, he’s got a great sense of humor. I never knew you could blurb a doctor, but I just did,” he adds.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
SAVING LITTLE ITALY
THE ICONIC ETHNIC NEIGHBORHOOD HAS OUTLASTED ALL OF BALTIMORE’S OLD-WORLD ENCLAVES. NOW IT FACES ITS GREATEST CHALLENGE IN MORE THAN A CENTURY.
IF YOU BUILD IT
A new architecture and design hub opens at One Charles Center.
The good, bad, and ugly of this surreal school year.
OUT OF THE BLUE
AS THE PANDEMIC WEARS ON, EXPERTS WEIGH IN ON WAYS TO STAY POSITIVE.
Her Turn Now
Odette Ramos’ ascension as Baltimore’s first-ever Latinx City Council member did not come easily.
GAMECHANGER KWEISI MFUME
Politician, legislator, advocate
Four local chefs show us that plant-based cooking doesn't have to be dull.
CRACKING THE CODE
Here’s a guide to choosing the right school or camp for your child with learning differences.
“The editor at The Baltimore Guide called and said President Kennedy was coming from Washington to give a speech at the armory,” recalls Tom Scilipoti. “He said he was flying in by helicopter and was going to land at Patterson Park and asked if I’d be interested in shooting it. I said, ‘Hell, yeah.’”
Boys To Men
Twenty years after their Super Bowl win, the 2000 Ravens are still talking about what it all means.
‘FRIEND' WITH BENEFITS: COURTENEY COX TO WED
LOVEBIRDS Courteney Cox and Johnny McDaid are officially ready to become more than just “Friends” — they’re planning a special wedding in Ireland, sources spilled.
THE REAL REASON JOHN LENNON DIED
Chilling truth 40 years after tragic murder
Timing is everything
HALEY KATHLEEN COX & JOHN WILLIAM RATLIFF FEBRUARY 1, 2020 • DALLAS
ANGELINA JOLIE CAUGHT IN DEPP CHEATING SCANDAL
Shocking details to be exposed in Johnny’s court fight with Amber
LT1 LT2 LT3 - LE MANS BACK-UP
Jaguar built three very special racing XK120 bodies to have as a back-up if the C-Type was not ready to debut at Le Mans in 1951. This is the story of those cars.
THUNDER & LIGHTNING
Guitar World celebrates half a century of Thin Lizzy, looking back through the eyes of two key longtime band members: guitarist Scott Gorham and drummer Brian Downey
In 1968, Cream say goodbye... for now, anyway
I WAS THERE! A historic moment in bass world—recalled by those who were there to see it
JOHN MYUNG DREAM THEATER
The acclaimed prog-metal bassist shares essential tips that will help you become a better player
“I don’t care if you can solo. Make people groove,” says the great Etienne Mbappé. Alison Richter digs into the philosophy behind the bass-lines
BEST BASSISTS REVEALED!
You voted for the Bassist Of 2020... and the results are in.