Dr. Joseph Masci, 71, of Manhasset, led the way on AIDS...

Dr. Joseph Masci, 71, of Manhasset, led the way on AIDS policy and treatment for patients.

Credit: Elizabeth Bass

Facing a new epidemic that would come to be known as AIDS, Dr. Joseph Masci, of Manhasset, evolved into a medical powerhouse who set standards in patient care and public policy for the disease — even the Vatican invited him to voice his opinion on the Catholic Church's response to the virus.

The infectious disease specialist, based at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, combined perseverance with an ingenuity and understanding of how New York City and its hospitals needed to be prepared, not just for AIDS, but also Ebola, bioterrorism, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and a host of other headline-grabbing health developments during his 45-year career, his family and colleagues said.

Whether it was drills, inter-hospital communications during terrorism attacks or rapid AIDS tests — Masci was key to coming up with what colleagues call the “big ideas.”

“He was our guiding light,” said Dr. Machelle Allen, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the NYC Health + Hospitals system, which includes the Elmhurst hospital. “He was a walking textbook balanced with common sense.”

Masci, the chairman of the Global Health Institute at the Elmhurst hospital, died Nov. 15 of renal cancer at age 71.In 1982, he joined the hospital as an attending physician in the infectious disease department and eventually rose to lead the medicine department in 2002 before becoming the institute’s first head in 2017.

Over his career, Masci gave presentations at international conferences and earned awards for his work. He garnered an award for volunteerism in 2007 from President George W. Bush. But most important to him was listening to patients and incorporating what they wanted in their care, a lesson he tried to instill in young doctors and students in his various teaching posts, those who knew him said.

“He felt very privileged to be able to help people,” said Elizabeth Bass, Masci's wife and a former editor at Newsday. “He was very dedicated to trying to ensure the best of care to people who were not rich and not always treated with the respect they deserve."

Born in New Jersey to a chemist father and a violinist mother, Masci chose infectious diseases as his specialty because patients could be cured completely with proper treatment rather than living with a chronic condition.

But just as he started his career, people with various symptoms were dying of a mysterious ailment that was eventually identified as a disease of the immune system called AIDS.

Masci had a reputation for not giving up on his patients, reading endlessly and often finding them options, which was not easy during the pre-computer desktop days. When one AIDS victim was in a wheelchair with severe arthritis and spasms, Masci prescribed an arthritis drug that helped clear up AIDS symptoms and led to her walking again at a time when she had been preparing for death. Another time, he recommended an over-the-counter medicine for bad breath for a patient with a mysteriously-recurring throat infection. It worked, a fellow doctor recalled.

In a story Masci liked to tell, he attributed some success to his days as a college newspaper reporter at Cornell University, where he got his biology degree in 1972.

“Always ask the next question,” Masci would say to other physicians, referring to patients and the data, according to colleagues. 

Masci received his medical degree from New York University in 1976.

On the question of how to get a handle on the AIDS crisis, he advocated making rapid HIV tests commonplace in emergency rooms and other medical settings, his colleagues said. This led to detailed data that shaped city and state health policies and allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote such testing worldwide, they said.

Dr. Maurice Policar, Elmhurst’s chief of infectious disease, credits Masci with bringing the hospital international acclaim with the AIDS clinic that he set up.

“He was really a pioneer,” Policar said. “He kind of took the bull by the horns. At the earliest possible time when the [HIV] test became available, he grabbed a nurse and started walking around the hospital to see which patients might be positive. He kind of was at the cutting edge all the time.”

As a believer in educating the public, Masci took his experiences on the road and worldwide. He gave regular updates on infectious diseases to about 200 United Nations medical staff. He led Elmhurst medical teams in multiyear projects to improve AIDS care in Russia and Ethiopia. He spoke to cardinals in Vatican City in 2011 on prevention of AIDS and the use of condoms as a way to prevent illness and not necessarily birth control. He was a weekly guest on The Reset, a program on Caribbean Power Jam Radio, to answer questions on COVID-19 and other topics.

If Masci ever lost hope, even while working five weeks straight during the COVID-19 pandemic, his family and friends never saw it.

Bass remembers her husband as a young man, and occasionally in his older years, singing “The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway musical, "Man of La Mancha."

“He would sing it kind of like a joke, hyper dramatic. I always thought underneath it all there was a quality about that song that spoke to him," Bass said. "The line that always got me was ‘to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.’ ”

Besides his wife, Masci is survived by his son Jonathan of Manhattan. A funeral service was held Nov. 20. A memorial has been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, with an online link at joemasci.life.

The family requests donations be made to Elmhurst Auxiliary’s Global Health Institute Fund or Hope for a Healthier Humanity.

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