Medical marvel, family doctor retires at age 97
By Lincoln Anderson
On Monday, the tenants of 290 Sixth Ave. tried to throw Dr. Charles P. Vialotti a farewell party for his retirement. But they couldn't. His office was so jammed with waiting patients that they had to cancel it.
Vialotti planned to retire on Wed. Feb. 8. He's entitled to a little time to kick back and relax. After all - he's three years shy of 100 years old.
But in the days leading to his packing in his doctor's bag he showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, Lucy Cecere, a co-founder of the Caring Community, which offers programs for Village seniors, and whose family were all Vialotti's patients, said she spoke to the doctor's wife, who told her that the office furniture was going to be sent to the Philippines. (Our Lady of Pompei Church across the street has a large Filipino congregation, hence the couches and tables' destination.) Taking away his furniture might be needed to finally convince him to retire, his wife said.
A Village native, Vialotti maintained his practice at 290 Sixth Ave., just north of Minetta Lane, for 65 years.
As of last week, he had 500 active patients, whose records have now been transferred to another Village doctor, Lawrence Ottaviano, on Sheridan Square. Most of them had been coming to Vialotti for years and liked his no-appointment, walk-in service. Many didn't have medical plans and appreciated that he kept his fees low - about $60 per visit.
Last Friday - although his medical certificates and trademark fish pictures had already been taken down off the walls - as usual, it was busy in Dr. Vialotti's small, green-walled office. Adelia Tapia, 42, of MacDougal St., was visiting for an earache. Her mother, Josephine, came along to get a refill for her blood-pressure pills, and they also had Adelia's rambunctious daughter, Caroline, 3, in tow. In total, 11 members of the Tapia family were patients of Dr. Vialotti, starting with Adelia's father, Dionisio - a superintendent on Carmine and MacDougal Sts. and elevator operator on University Pl.- who first came after he emigrated to New York from Mexico.
He'll be missed
. These are the same books that were here when I was a little girl, Tapia, a recruiter for the Katharine Gibbs School, said with a smile as she picked up one called Popcorn from a shelf beside her. It's important to have that comfort level. He's smart. He knows his stuff. These young doctors today, they take a chance. So many young doctors today, they don't have the experience Dr. Vialotti has been through. I always liked that he's a good listener. He sits down and goes over things with you thoroughly.
Another woman, a peppery redhead from MacDougal and Prince Sts. who declined to give her name, was waiting to get a form signed for her blood-pressure medication.
He's our family doctor. I don't know any other doctor, she said.
But, as longtime patients will tell, the one downside of Vialotti's careful attention was that his waiting room was always full - with longshoremen, housewives, students, actors and actresses.
Having grown visibly frustrated at the wait, the woman from MacDougal and Prince Sts. said she'd come back later and left.
Oh my God, I'm going to get fired! The only thing, he does take his time, worried Tapia. After she finally saw the doctor and left to return to work, her father, Dionisio, dropped by the doctor's office to help take care of his granddaughter.
My child, half price, $50, he said of Vialotti's rates. Other doctors, $100, $150. It's good for my family.
His presence heretofore signaled only by occasional bursts of mirthful laughter from the examining room, Dr. Vialotti came out to fetch a Cat in the Hat book for young Caroline, who was bounding around the office full of energy, thinking it might settle her down. Wearing a blue doctor's coat and with a full head of wavy white hair, white moustache and glasses, the nonagenarian physician easily ambled up a pair of steps between two rooms.
He's strong too, softly marveled Dionisio Tapia, 75 - who said he personally plans to retire soon - as the doctor, sure footed, quickly passed by.
Let her keep this. I think she'll enjoy this, Vialotti said, a bit later, as he again gave Caroline the book - which she had dropped on a couch - this time to keep. Hasta luego, he said, giving her a kiss goodbye.
With the last of his patients for the day gone - he had planned to close at 2 p.m., but it was now already 4 p.m. - Dr. Vialotti had some time to talk on the eve of his retirement about his career and his life. Settling into a chair in the waiting room, he looked comfortable and at ease.
That was simple, he dismissed of Tapia's earache. Titus media and titus exterior. The more interesting stuff is when people come in with severe pulmonary symptoms.
The very embodiment of good health, he appears to be and acts at least 25 years younger than he is. Though he had some surgery last year, there's nothing frail seeming about him.
Like his easy laugh, the stories poured out of him fluidly, fully formed.
Vialotti first launched into an animated discussion of one of his great passions, fishing.
I caught a fluke a month ago off the coast - no, we were in the bay, he corrected himself. He showed a photo of himself from a Long Island newspaper in 1995 hoisting a 20-pounder. He recalled how he and his brother in their youth custom-built a 48-foot fishing boat.
But I think you're more interested in my medical history, he said.
Born on Carmine St.
To start from the beginning, Vialotti was born on Carmine St., the middle child of three children of Italian immigrants from Genoa. His father was a traffic manager for a candy manufacturer.
I remember Armistice Day, he recalled of the end of World War I. I was in school at 95 [the current City as School on Clarkson St.]. They announced the signing of the agreement. There was a German helmet that one of the boys from 95 had brought back. I put the hat on a broom and we all marched out celebrating the peace, he said, pantomiming how he carried it.
In his younger days, he was given to assembling electronic contraptions, and would often go over to the Bowery to get whatever parts and lightbulbs he needed. He even made his own violin - though it was square shaped - using some old strings from a friend's violin and, for the bow, horsetail hair from horses he used to ride between the stables on Hudson St. and where they were hitched to wagons on Downing St. His father bought him a real violin, but several stabs at trying to learn it didn't pan out - mainly because, Vialotti said, he never learned to read sheet music. He stashed it in a ceiling crawl space for a few years, then pulled it out one day, but it was warped from moisture.
My father said, 'I'll buy you a new one.' But I said, just forget it, Vialotti remembered.
It was instead medicine that struck a resounding chord with him.
In eighth grade I told my teacher I wanted to be a doctor, he said. I worked in a pharmacy for four years.
He went on to attend New York University as a premed student, and New York Medical School, then at 105th St. and Fifth Ave. He did his internship at a hospital in Trenton and his residency at St. John's Riverside Hospital in Yonkers.
When he was in Trenton, one day two police officers came into the hospital and rushed up to him.
They told me, 'You, come with us,' he said. While the two officers shone flashlights so he could see what he was doing, Vialotti delivered a baby in a house without electricity or running water. Without running water, he recalled, smiling and shaking his head at the very thought of it. They did a story on it. National. My friend in California told me he heard it on the radio.
In the late 1930s, he was one of the first doctors to use antibiotics, then still in an experimental stage. When he was at Trenton, a clearly posted sign warned hospital doctors that they were not allowed to use the new sulfa drugs. However, when the daughter of a doctor who was working as the doctor's secretary confided to him that she had puerperal sepsis - an infected pregnancy - he knew he had to try something.
Her abdomen was a giant abscess, he explained. She told me, 'You're going to cure me.'
Vialotti asked a friend working with the new drugs on Welfare Island to instruct him on their use. Although most women died of the infections back then, Vialotti cured her. After that, he recalled, at the hospital, The new rule was 'Dr. Vialotti, and only Dr. Vialotti, will be allowed to use the new sulfa drugs.'
So I'm now the specialist on sulfa drugs on the staff, Vialotti recalled.
Shortly afterwards, a football player who was lying in traction with a broken leg asked Vialotti for help.
He said, 'Doc, I got the clap,' Vialotti recalled. I said, 'Don't worry, I can cure it.' After the test came back positive for very active gonorrhea, Vialotti gave the man the antibiotics. In two days, it cured so much that it was cured on the third day - that's curing.
But other doctors didn't like Vialotti stepping on their toes.
I said, 'Yeah, you treat 'em with injections in the penis and irrigations for three weeks or months. It doesn't pay as well to use antibiotics, Vialotti said. Word got around that if you have the clap, Vialotti cures you.
One year to live
During his residency, he was working 20 hours and getting only one hour of sleep per day, and after only a month, one day he collapsed on the job. A doctor examined him, found fluid in his lungs, and broke the news to Vialotti that he only had a year left to live, so he might as well enjoy it. He first finished his residency, then spent a year doing art, which he found he liked, and for which his medical knowledge of human musculature came in handy.
Another doctor taught him how to lean over the side of his bed with his hands on a piece of newspaper on the floor to help clear his lungs, and after a year, Vialotti said, I decided I'm not that sick.
Overcoming his chest problems was not the only lucky break Vialotti had. He also avoided serving in World War II by a number of twists of fate. He'd been tapped for a mission to rescue an American officer in Germany. But after he finished his premed studies, he decided to anglicize his name in a literal translation from the Italian Carlo Pellegrino to Charles Pilgrim. I figured, I'm here in America, I'm anglicized, let me do it, he said of the name change. Also, apparently, the midwife didn't fill out a form when he was born on Carmine St. All of this apparently threw the draft board.
They insisted I was not an American citizen, Vialotti recalled.
He started his practice on W. 11th St., then moved into 290 Sixth Ave., before the developer, Joe Breen, had even finished building it.
In good physical shape, he quickly earned a reputation for being the doctor who would make house calls to the top floors of walkup buildings. At first, he got calls for patients living on the sixth floor, but soon he was getting all the calls for patients on the fourth and fifth floors, as well. Eventually, he developed his own system to cut down on stair climbing.
One day I had 19 house calls, he remembered. There was a bad respiratory disease going around. He realized he could visit patients on his way up in one building, then go across the rooftops and visit a few more in another building on his way down.
People used to tell me, 'We left the roof door open.' I could do two or three in one house and two or three in another house with only one climb. He put this technique to use often on MacDougal, Sullivan and Thompson Sts.
At one point, the Village's other doctors apparently got upset that Vialotti was taking all their business, because he was accused by an investigator of making too many house calls. He was asked to testify before a panel.
I said, 'The call came in. People said they were too sick to come in. So I went. Period, Vialotti recalled. Since no other doctors wanted to make house calls I did all of them. They told me it was illegal - I didn't stop.
He recently climbed three flights on Carmine St., but for the last eight or nine years, he's mainly practiced out of his office.
Earlier in his career, he did everything - surgery, obstetrics, gynecology, hernia repairs - but the last 30 years he's been mainly a family physician.
Most of my patients have lived in the Village - since it was the Village, he said. It used to be everybody knew everybody else. When I used to walk on the streets, people used to tip their hat.
When he was growing up and a young doctor, the Village was largely Italian and Irish. He remembers which streets - like Carmine and Bleecker - were Italian, or how Downing St. was Italian with some Irish on the corner.
People used to call across the street, 'How's your mother? How's your brother?' he reminisced.
Reaching what most would consider retirement age, Vialotti just kept going, though in recent years he took Thursdays off.
I was feeling so full of activity and good, he said. At 69, I informed Medicare that I wouldn't even consider my seniority until 72. Until the last two years, I've enjoyed every minute of the practice.
Some residents of Carmine St. whose lives he saved when he was 86 are fortunate he waited to hang up his stethoscope.
I got a call that a husband and wife at 61 Carmine St. were very sick, he said. I grabbed my bag, ran over. But there were no obvious symptoms. I began to suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. The landlord's wife said their baby was also sick. I said, that's enough. I called 911. Six or seven emergency vehicles came to Carmine St. We got everyone out. A few people had to be hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Although he himself wasn't feeling well a few years ago and took some time off, he rebounded as soon as he started working again.
Pain in the butts
Asked how he's managed to live so long and remain so vital, Vialotti just said, lucky. One thing he knows helped was finally managing to kick smoking. He got hooked in college when a cigarette company gave away free packs to students. By the time he was doing his residency, he said, I got to the point where I'd only use one match - I'd light one cigarette after another. He tried to quit but relapsed. He only realized how badly he was addicted when he once found himself desperately searching ashtrays in the office's waiting room for a butt. He went out and bought a pack, then angrily threw it into the sewer. He hasn't smoked since.
And that was years ago, he said. I think it's pretty important. I think that adds to the reason that I'm still doing well.
Also, Vialotti said, he was very fortunate to marry his wife, Rose, a former bookkeeper at the Art Students League, who has made sure he doesn't start smoking again and that he eats healthy food. Vialotti knew he wanted to marry her when he first set eyes on her walking on the street one evening. As fate would have it, his family and hers ended up moving into the same Waverly Pl. building. Their first date was at the old Loews movie theater on Greenwich Ave.
Now it's an exercise center, he noted. He and Rose, 91, live on 12th St. and until his last day of work on Wednesday, he drove to work every day, parking in front and feeding the meter.
His son Charles has followed in his footsteps and is a cancer specialist in New Jersey, where he uses one of the most technologically advanced radiation machines in the world. His daughter, who was in Broadway theater, died at age 54 of a head tumor that was misdiagnosed as migraines. Vialotti still is deeply disturbed about it.
He treated many actors and actresses over the years, giving them a sliding-scale fee.
Actresses used to live four in an apartment, he recalled. I used to charge them accordingly: 'Well, pay me when you can.'
However, out of respect for their privacy, he refused to name any celebrities who were patients. He did mention that the first editors of the American Heritage Dictionary saw him, though, and that he even assisted them on the dictionary and that they held editing sessions in his office.
Vialotti - as well as many tenants in the building who used him as their doctor or just liked having a doctor there in case something happened to them - hoped his unit would continue to be a medical office, but the co-op board, not wanting the foot traffic, decided it would be residential.
I could have gone to court to fight it, but I figured judges are probably buying real estate now too, he said.
Ralph De Blasio, 76, a tenant and a former Village Republican district leader, said he personally wishes there would continue to be a doctor in the building.
He came upstairs and taped me up when I couldn't get out of bed once, De Blasio recalled last Friday, as he visited the office earlier to see how the doctor was faring in wrapping things up. 'You're 97 years old,' I always tell him, 'You've outlived your patients.' But he had some patients on Sullivan St. he couldn't let go of.
Even the broker, Tony Cali, who had been showing the apartment to the buyer a few hours earlier, is a Vialotti fan.
This man is internally joyous, he said. If I could bottle what he has, I'd be a millionaire.
As for what he'll do now that he's retired, the doctor, as usual, had a ready answer.
My great niece gave me a medical book, which I'll browse. I've got drawing paper, drawing pens, pencils. I'll do anatomical drawings. In other words, he said with his trademark smile and a twinkle in his light blue eyes, stuff I used to do when I didn't work doing medicine when I was recovering from the disease I didn't have!
But while Vialotti once may have helped edit a dictionary, easing into retirement isn't an expression in his vocabulary. When The Villager called on Monday, he protested that he simply had no time to speak.
I have eight patients sitting in my waiting room! he said. I'll be here till 8 p.m.!