Claims that medical school dean led drug-fueled secret life stun many in Boston
Dr. Carmen Puliafito was once among Boston’s most prominent physicians, building a clinic from scratch before leaving more than a decade ago for prestigious roles in Miami and then in Los Angeles.
Now the Harvard-educated eye surgeon, who became dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school, is in the spotlight after a sensational report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that Puliafito essentially led a double life.
Puliafito was a renowned academic by day, an ophthalmologist who helped raise more than $1 billion for USC. By night, according to the report, he did hard drugs and partied with prostitutes and other drug users — sometimes in his university office.
The Times interviewed people who partied with Puliafito and reviewed photos and videos of him taking ecstasy and methamphetamine in 2015 and 2016.
Following the newspaper’s report last week, USC officials said they were investigating the matter and were working to fire Puliafito and strip him of his faculty tenure as quickly as possible for his “egregious behavior.”
The sudden change in fortune for the 66-year-old hotshot doctor stunned many in Boston, where Puliafito got his start and spent the first two decades of his career.
It’s difficult to know whether Puliafito had substance-abuse issues when he worked in Boston in the 1980s and 1990s. He has no criminal record, according to the Times report.
A longtime friend who spoke to the Globe said he had never seen Puliafito take hard drugs. A spokeswoman for Tufts Medical Center, where he worked for 10 years until 2001, said there is no indication of any issues during his time at Tufts.
In Boston, Puliafito was known as driven and intense, a physician who relished the business of running a clinic as well as his time in the operating room — and who occasionally performed laser eye surgery on cats and dogs.
Paul Parravano said it’s hard to square the allegations with the man he has called a friend since they were roommates while Harvard undergraduates.
“It’s difficult for me to comprehend that with the Carmen, the eye surgeon and friend for life, that I know,” he said.
Parravano is blind, and according to Puliafito’s own telling, inspired him to go into the field of eye medicine. Although they live on different coasts — Parravano works in government and community relations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — they regularly keep in touch. Parravano was best man at Puliafito’s wedding and flew to California for his 60th birthday party.
They call each other from time to time to chat about baseball, politics, and their Harvard undergrad days. “He’s always been loyal,” Parravano said. “He calls, or I’ll call him. We have great memories of things we did in college. We went hitchhiking together when we were in college. We did a lot of adventurous things. He was always up for adventure.”
Puliafito went on to Harvard Medical School and got his training at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a specialty hospital. He stayed there as a staff ophthalmologist until 1991.
That year he decamped for Tufts Medical Center, where he launched the New England Eye Center — competing for business with his former employer, Mass. Eye and Ear. He stayed at Tufts and taught at the affiliated Tufts University School of Medicine until 2001.
“Dr. Puliafito has been an innovator in the field of ophthalmology, and his work has led to many important discoveries,” Tufts Medical Center spokeswoman Rhonda Mann said in a statement. “He started the New England Eye Center in 1991 to serve the local community with the latest advancements in vision medicine and today, 15 years after he left, the Center is thriving, with more than 100,000 patient visits per year.”
Puliafito left Boston to run an eye institute at the University of Miami before becoming dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine in 2007. He stepped down as dean last year but remained on the faculty.
On July 21, four days after the Times investigation was published, USC provost Michael W. Quick told the faculty: “Today, we were provided access to information of egregious behavior on the part of the former dean concerning substance abuse activities with people who aren’t affiliated with USC. This was the first time we saw such information first-hand.”
In his memo, Quick noted that substance abuse is a tragic and devastating disease, but he said the university is obligated to take action against Puliafito.
USC has hired a law firm to investigate. But in a statement Wednesday, president C. L. Max Nikias acknowledged that university officials “could have done better” to recognize Puliafito’s issues.
When the Globe tried to contact Puliafito, a woman who picked up the phone at a number listed for him said he was not speaking with reporters.
Mass. Eye and Ear declined to comment about Puliafito’s tenure there, and a Tufts University spokesman said no one was available to comment. Two high-ranking physicians who worked with Puliafito at Tufts declined to comment.
A 1993 Boston Globe profile of Puliafito called him a world-renowned researcher of lasers in medicine who was “simultaneously brilliant, boyish, moody, cheerful, engaging, brutally frank, entertaining, demanding, volatile and hard-nosed.”
“Puliafito is not grouchy; he is merely semi-volcanic,” the Globe story said. “Actually . . . he is more like one of those Yellowstone Park mud pots: placid on the surface for a few minutes, then erupting for a moment, then calm again.”