No Average Joe
Baltimore magazine|November 2020
As he pushes past his own personal pain, Dr. Joseph Cofrancesco continues to dedicate his life’s work to helping others.

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.

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