Norman Braman billionaire, auto magnate, art collector, philanthropist, former NFL owner and most recently, political activist has met his share of interesting people in his lifetime. But few compare to his longtime doctor and friend, Dr. Eugene Gene J. Sayfie.
Sayfie is a Miami cardiologist and internist who after five decades of practicing medicine still gives out his cell phone number to every new patient. And when necessary, he makes house calls.
He is one of the most remarkable people I have met in my life, Braman said. He is caring, loving, gentle, kind he is very special.
The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine recently recognized Sayfies dedication by honoring him with the universitys first Distinguished Master Clinician Award. With the help of about $1 million in private donations, the medical school also opened the Eugene J. Sayfie Pavilion for Excellence in Patient Care.
There are very few men, who love their wives, their family, their God, their profession and their patients, equally and passionately, said former UM Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Phillip George. His heart just has room for all of it. There is always a balance. He is not obsessed with any portion of it.
In Sayfies new office, a silver frame displays a photo of him and his wife, Suzanne, 63, executive director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. They met when she was 14. She had just started at Miami High; he was dating her cousin. A few years later at a church convention in West Virginia, the couple danced once. He never forgot her. They wed when she was 19 and have been married 43 years.
She has a theory behind his caring ways: My husband was born into a poor family. His father and grandfather passed away when he was a little boy. His uneducated grandmother and mother raised him.
Sayfies grandmother and mother were born in a small village in Syria. During World War I, his grandfather left to help rescue a brother, who was a revolutionary fighter against the French.
He got stuck there, said Sayfie, 77. My grandmother had to take care of my mother and my aunt so she grew silkworms and wheat and bragged that in 1918 she earned mens wages.
Bound for U.s.
His grandmother left the village to make her way to the United States. She traveled to Damascus and to Beirut, and dodged an encounter with the French, who wanted her to trade her gold for French francs. She boarded a ship in Marseille, and arrived with her two daughters at New Yorks Ellis Island in the early 1920s.
My mother quit school when she was in third grade, and worked in a meat-packing company, Sayfie said.
His mother met his father in Charleston, W.V. He was an unsuccessful peddler from Lebanon, who died when Sayfie was 3. His grandfather died when he was 8. His mother remarried a man he used to call Pop, but he died shortly later.
In the Arab world mourning and loud wailing is common. I just remember, black, black, black. I wore a black band on my arm for at least a year, Sayfie said.
His older brother, Ernest Sayfie, was his paternal figure. He had followed him as a newspaper delivery boy and as an altar boy in the Antiochian Christian Eastern Orthodox Church. He grew up wanting to become a priest and spent hours reading philosophy and writing poetry.
But with the Korean War looming, he registered at West Virginia University. His brother dreamed of becoming a doctor, so Sayfie chose pre-med. He graduated from West Virginia in 1956, and completed medical school at Washington University in St. Louis in 1960. He had residencies at Boston City Hospitals Harvard Medical School Service and the University Hospital of Cleveland. He joined Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1964.
Nothing saddened him more than his brothers death. Dr. Ernest Sayfie, the former chief of staff at Memorial Regional Hospital in Broward County, was known as the doctor to the stars. Among his patients: Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. He died in 1998 from a heart attack following kidney surgery. He was 67.
I always knew that no matter what happened to me, I could go to my brother, Sayfie said. He was my backstop. Whenever I had a problem he was there. When he died, I became the backstop, and that is a big responsibility.
Sayfie joined Mount Sinai Medical Center in 2000, and UM in 2008. He has taught at UMs medical school and at Nova Southeastern University.
taught by example
He used to frown on minimalists, people who would just do the minimum to survive. He was demanding and taught us that you always want to do everything in your power to help your patients, said Dr. Alejandro Del Valle, 37. He taught by example. I always saw him go the extra step.
His four daughters Stephanie Sayfie-Aagaard, 42, Nicole Sayfie-Porcelli, 40, Lisa Sayfie-Ranawat, 39, and Amy Sayfie, 36 know firsthand about his teaching ways.
My dad used to tell us, Where there is a problem there is a solution. We used to have sessions, where he would sit us down and ask us how our day was and what we had learned that day, said Lisa Sayfie-Ranawat. He made us feel special and taught us the importance of communication, said Stephanie Sayfie-Aagaard, who writes a society column in Sundays Tropical Life.
The new facility is a testament to Sayfies attention to detail. The staff includes a specialist in cardiovascular genetics and another in plastic surgery.
Gene has spent his professional career making all patients feel like VIPs, and this pavilion for excellence in patient care officially marks the culmination of his vision for personalized treatment, said UM President Donna E. Shalala.
Feel of a spa
The pavilions lobby has the feel of a spa, with dark wood tables, cozy white chairs and orchids. For Sayfie, relaxation and stress management are equally important to mending a person.
Patients need our time and attention. Some may view my approach as inefficient but we cannot forget that we are dealing with peoples lives here, not numbers, he said.
Near his consultation room hangs a Romero Britto portrait of him. The bright colors highlight his small glasses and smile.
He is an old-school doctor. These days no one makes themselves available 24/7, said Madeleine Arison. About 17 years ago, she and her husband, Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, found it odd that Sayfie would answer his patients calls during their consultation. Then we realized that it could easily be us calling.