John A. Del Rossi: Wellness guru on health, heroics and blueberries

John A. Del Rossi: Wellness guru on health, heroics and blueberries

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“Medicine is not only a science, it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plaster. It deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided.” — Philipus A. Paracelsus

That is part of the mission statement of the Rossi Wellness Center, which is being honored with the 2013 Business/Corporation HERO Award from the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund. The DVLF HERO awards were started seven years ago to honor those people and organizations whose work and leadership advance the rights of the LGBT community. This year’s event, on May 19, is guaranteed to be an amazing gala, starting with the venue, the Hotel Monaco at Fourth and Chestnut streets (I recently participated in an OurNightOut event there and the place is must-see fabulous). Speaking of fabulous, the featured celebrity guest is Olympic skater Johnny Weir. If you missed him at Winter Pride, this is another chance to see him up-close and personal. There’s even an after-party at Fire and Ice, a new venue that has been very attuned to the LGBT community by hosting regular drag brunches. In anticipation of the award, I had a chance to speak to Dr. John Del Rossi, founder of the center, about life, liberty and the pursuit of good health.

PGN: So you and Jill Biden are from the same hometown, Hammonton, N.J.? JDR: That’s right. It’s the blueberry capital of the world. A small town, with not a lot going on beside the blueberries, but I thought it was the only place in the world growing up. The first time I went to Deptford to see a movie, I could see the skyline of Philadelphia. It looked like Oz to me and I thought, Wow, there’s more out there! I still go back to Hammonton frequently to visit my dad and, 25 years later, it’s still unchanged.

PGN: Tell me about your parents. JDR: Well, my mom passed about nine years ago, but she was a hairdresser. She quit that because of asthma and opened up a clothing store. She eventually went into nursing. My dad is a retired Army drill sergeant. After the Army, he worked for the school district as a janitor and then started his own commercial-cleaning company and did very well with it.

PGN: Having a drill-sergeant father must have been interesting. JDR: Oh yeah, we had GI Joe Saturdays. There was no such thing as getting up and watching “Scooby Doo.” We were up at 5:30 a.m. to clean the house. [Laughs.] I still have PTSD-like flashbacks when I smell Pine Sol! It did make me very disciplined though. PGN: Did your mother being a hairdresser make her more open to you being gay? JDR: Not really, because it wasn’t something, at that time in a small town, that anyone spoke of. When I did come out to her, it was under circumstances that weren’t ideal. She came around pretty quickly, though, and became a staunch supporter.

PGN: You grew up in the blueberry capital. Tell me two health benefits of blueberries. JDR: Oh gosh, it’s the wonder fruit of the world! There’s huge antioxidant power, and antioxidants have amazing anti-aging benefits. It’s one of the 10 most important foods you can have in your home.

PGN: I also read Hammonton is 45-percent Italian. I assume Del Rossi is Italian? JDR: Oh yes, my middle name is Angelo. [Laughs.] They originally wanted to name me Rocco! Rocco Angelo Del Rossi. Everyone in my extended family speaks Italian, except stupid me who didn’t want to learn it, which I sorely regret now.

PGN: Big Italian family? JDR: Just a brother and sister, but a lot of uncles and aunts and cousins. My parents each had eight or nine siblings.

PGN: A funny family memory? JDR: My brother had just adopted two children and we were doing an Easter egg hunt for them. About 10 minutes into the hunt, my niece found an egg. Suddenly, it cracked in her hand and we realized it was uncooked. As the kids found more eggs, we realized my mother had forgotten to boil the three-dozen eggs before coloring them. We had a good chuckle.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? JDR: Very quiet, I liked to read a lot. A nerd, very skinny. I probably would have been bullied if ... well, actually I was bullied. But my father made me work at his cleaning business from seventh grade forward so, outside of some friends and flag football, I really didn’t do a whole lot.

PGN: Flag football? I guess you had some athletic abilities. JDR: Yeah, I really didn’t know it before because I always got made fun of in school. I guess when I had to perform in front of other people I got nervous, but just playing recreationally I was pretty good. Now I take boxing lessons and I’m ... well, let’s just say I think I can hold my own.

PGN: Now I know who to call if I’m in trouble. You can be my personal HERO! JDR: You’ve got it!

PGN: Who was your hero in school? JDR: I had an English teacher who was teased and talked about at school for being gay. He never seemed ashamed of being who he was, even though I’m sure he heard all the things said about him. He talked about things in class that in those days weren’t usually discussed. It was very admirable. That was the time when I was realizing that I was gay and I thought, Wow, he’s OK with being himself while I’m petrified. It made me look up to him. Unfortunately, about eight years after I graduated, he committed suicide.

PGN: Whoa, that was not the ending I expected, John D.! JDR: I know! Sorry!

PGN: How did you end up coming out? JDR: Well, it was a matter of knowing who I was and not being able or willing to hide it anymore. I was in college, and I had a girlfriend and we were talking about getting married. We had a pregnancy scare and I realized I need to come out or I was going to get myself locked into a situation that wasn’t fair to anybody. I came out to my sister and then my mom. I actually didn’t tell my dad for about four years: He was staunchly Italian-Catholic and had been very derogatory about homosexuality, so I was really scared to tell him.

PGN: Did it work out? JDR: Yes, because I kind of hit him with a double whammy. I told him when my partner at the time was diagnosed with AIDS. I didn’t know what my status was going to be, so I said, “I’m gay, and I’ll let you know by the end of the week if I have AIDS or not.” He was so scared for me, he said, “Right now I can’t even think about the gay thing, I just want you to be OK.” But now he’s pretty good. He’ll ask about my partner, Alan. He still can’t get his name right, but I think that’s just an old- dad thing. He still calls me by my brother’s name half the time!

PGN: College years: You were an accounting major. Why? JDR: [Laughs.] I had no idea what I wanted to do, and it was the first thing in alphabetical order on the signup sheet. My dad approved, saying you’ll always have a job with accounting. Right out of school I got an accounting job and got laid off after a year. So much for that! I did get another accounting job that lasted for years.

PGN: How did you get into medicine? JDR: My partner was diagnosed with AIDS, and he initially was taken care of by John Turner, who was well-known at the time. He had a physician’s assistant, and I was impressed with how much he knew. I knew accounting wasn’t a passion for me and I wanted to do something with people who were HIV-positive so I applied to the Hahnemann PA program. They only accept about 50 people out of 1,200 applications and, shockingly, I got in.

PGN: I understand your partner lost his battle in 1994? JDR: Yes, there were more HIV-related deaths in ’94 than in any other year in U.S. history. I attended more funerals that year than I care to remember. In fact, I’d come back from the funeral of one of my best friends and was physically, mentally and emotionally worn out. I didn’t feel like visiting my partner, who was in the hospital, but something told me to go. I went to visit him, stayed for a while, went home and later that night got a phone call that he had passed. So I went to the funeral of one of my best friends and lost my partner in the same day. It’s not something that most people in their 20s had to deal with. It was a different world then.

PGN: I didn’t realize that the epidemic was at its height that late. JDR: 1995 and ’96 were when they started using the cocktail therapies and having effectiveness against the disease. So the years right before that — ’93 and ’94 — were the most deadly.

PGN: How did you end up in San Fran? JDR: I wanted to do something specifically with HIV and was able to create my own elective during the PA program. I had a friend who knew someone at the University of California’s Ward 86, and they got me in. Ward 86 is one of the oldest and largest HIV/AIDS clinics in the United States.

PGN: Let’s turn to what you’re doing now. JDR: Well, I own and run the Rossi Wellness Center. I see patients as well as operate the practice, and if I have any time left over after my 70-hour work week, I work with a company contracted by the Defense Department to provide pre- and post-deployment health assessments to troop members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We make sure they’re mentally and physically fit to perform and carry a rifle. It’s sad because so many of them have seen a lot of things they find very difficult to talk about and then they, especially the reservists, get thrown back into their regular jobs as if nothing happened. The suicide rates are a big problem, and I think we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg of the mental-health issues. I think a lot of the problems are going to be played out for years. It’s sad that we’re not doing more for these returning veterans.

PGN: Your website says that, despite the U.S. spending $2.2 trillion annually, we don’t practice health care. JDR: We practice disease care. It’s why I started the wellness center. People don’t go see their doctors until they have a disease or problem and then they want you to fix it. Most providers never address the reason they got the problem, they just offer a pill to make the symptoms go away. I’d rather we prevent the person from getting the problem in the first place. We can do things to help by the choices we make, such as what we eat, how much exercise we get, how much sleep we get, how many hours we work and how much and what we worry about. Poor nutrition, which leads to obesity, diabetes, depression, arthritis and other problems, isn’t something often discussed by providers. Most medical-school programs don’t even teach nutrition. But the food choices we make/have in this country are abysmal. We try to teach and practice preventative and homeopathic measures. It doesn’t mean we don’t believe in Western medicine, but it’s one of several things we do. They call it integrative medicine.

PGN: And you’re pursuing a doctorate in health psychology? What is that? JDR: It’s understanding how the mind/body can affect the way you feel. The state of mind can have a big impact on people with chronic illnesses. Trying to find ways to make happy chemicals naturally in the body instead of negative ones.

PGN: And you’re a board-certified anti-aging specialist. That must be popular, especially in our community, as everyone strives to stay young. JDR: Yes, we want to make sure that as you get older, you can age gracefully and remain functional. I know I don’t want to be that older person who can barely walk and needs three naps a day. I want to be that older person who has energy and can be vibrant and sexual and happy. I don’t want to go through the withering-away process. When I go, I want to have a heart attack in the middle of the night and be done with it!

PGN: I read you got into anti-aging work because of your work with HIV/AIDS. JDR: HIV can cause accelerated aging and something called lipoatrophy, which can be a side effect from some of the older medications. The newer medications don’t cause as much lipoatrophy, but it can happen. It causes the face to lose fat tissue and can create “facial wasting.” It occurs in other parts of the body too, but you can cover up your arms or belly or butt. You can’t hide your face when you go out, and a lot of patients feel a loss of confidentiality because of it, or are extremely uncomfortable going out and having people stare at them. One patient told me he was at a local bar here and he overheard a couple of young guys point at him and say, “Oh look, it’s Skeletor.” It was very hurtful: He wouldn’t go out of the house for months. I was shocked at the insensitivity of it, especially at a gay bar, and I was surprised he had suffered so long when there are treatments for it, such as Sculptra. The trick is getting insurance companies to pay for it. They think of it as a cosmetic procedure rather than reconstructive, which is an abomination. Breast reconstruction for cancer patients is not considered cosmetic; I view this as very similar. Some companies are slowly starting to come around.

PGN: So, some random questions. What was the first LGBT movie you watched? JDR: “Torch Song Trilogy.” I was 23, I think.

PGN: Do you have a partner? JDR: Yes, he’s a health and wellness consultant. He’s finishing up his bachelor’s this year. Yay for him! PGN: Most useless unique talent? JDR: I have a memory for detail that’s kind of scary. I can remember a sequence of numbers for great lengths of time.

PGN: My unhealthy craving ... JDR: Cheesecake. I could have been one of the Golden Girls! [Trivia: The girls consumed more than 100 cheesecakes during the show’s seven-year run.]

PGN: What cartoon character best represents your personal philosophy? JDR: Ha ha! I’d have to say Stewie Griffin. I’m a big “Family Guy” guy. I think my wry sense of humor is very comparable to Stewie’s. All I’ll say is, Victory is mine!

See the Rossi Wellness Center and others honored at 2013 HEROES from noon-3 pm. May 19. For more information or tickets, visit www.dvlf.org.

For more information on the Rossi Wellness Center, visit www.rossicenter.com.


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