When Dr. John “Jack” Ciliberti talked, people stopped to listen.
People called him brilliant and a visionary, but it wasn’t just that. Generous and kind, he had that envied quality that drew others to follow his lead — and they did, as he pioneered electronic-medical-records systems and modernized stroke detection and emergency care in East King County.
Dr. Ciliberti, 70, died early Tuesday when his small airplane crashed at the Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course in Fall City.
Although he retired nearly a decade ago as medical director of Overlake Medical Center’s emergency department, and before that as medical director of Bellevue Fire Department’s Medic One program, Dr. Ciliberti left lasting impressions on those who worked with him.
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“He wasn’t simply a doctor in the emergency room, he was a leader in the emergency room,” said Marty LaFave, battalion chief for the Bellevue Fire Department, who first worked with Dr. Ciliberti as a paramedic in the 1980s. “He played the role of mentor, ambassador, teacher and physician.”
With his eye always on what was best for patients, Dr. Ciliberti was intent on building a first-class emergency system for the Eastside, said Dr. Tom Miller, chief of staff at Overlake. “He took it to another level,” Miller said.
Dr. Ciliberti helped bring emergency care to outlying areas of the county, worked with hospital emergency staff to modernize treatments, and created a novel screening program for patients at risk of strokes. To improve the transfer of emergency patients, he fostered an alliance between medics and hospital emergency staff that still exists, Miller said.
“Twenty-eight years ago, emergency medicine was just coming into its own in Washington,” said Dr. Stephen Anderson, a former president of the state chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “He helped create this [emergency medicine] into a practice. More than just being an early emergency-medicine doctor he was instrumental in trying to unify it as a specialty.”
Dr. Ciliberti had “uncompromising principles on what it means to take care of critically ill people, and strong opinions on matters — and virtually all the time his opinions turned out to be correct,” said Dr. Mickey Eisenberg, medical director for King County Emergency Medicine Services.
Dr. Ciliberti was also a man of many interests and skills, including a passion for woodworking.
An early computer programmer, he pushed Overlake to adopt an electronic-medical-records system that became the basis of the surveillance system used today to detect disease outbreaks around the county, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, communicable-disease chief for Public Health-Seattle & King County.
“He was on the cutting edge of health informatics,” Duchin said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ciliberti kept the “free spirit” of the ’60s alive and well, refusing to be bound by rules that got in the way of patient care.
“If it made sense to do something outside the boundary, he would be more likely to say, ‘Let’s do that,’ ” LaFave said.
In the 1970s, he was one of the first volunteer doctors at Country Doctor Clinic, an early community clinic. “He was colorful, a joy to be around, and just one hell of a good guy — and also really well known as a very high-quality doc,” said Tom Byers, who was the clinic’s program coordinator in the 1970s.
In 1974, Dr. Ciliberti met his wife-to-be, a nurse, during an emergency “code” at the former U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. The setting wasn’t very romantic, said Molly Ciliberti, but the two hit it off and married in 1982.
Dr. Ciliberti, an early environmentalist, was a political liberal “and proud of it,” his wife said. “He truly believed all people were equal and he lived that as a humble human being. … He was the physician that you hoped you would have.”
He took great pride in his family and loved his children, grandchildren and friends “with an open heart and unconditional love,” Molly Ciliberti said.
Dr. Ciliberti was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., did his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins, graduated from medical school at Emory University with honors and was a resident in cardiology at the University of Washington.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the accident.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Ciliberti is survived by five children, Jackie Ciliberti, of San Francisco, and Susan Huenefeld, Nancy Gese, Eric Huenefeld and Doug Field, all of the Seattle area; five grandchildren; and siblings Anne Singer and Dick Ciliberti.
The family plans a celebration of his life later this summer. In lieu of flowers, Molly Ciliberti suggested donations to Wolf Haven International at www.wolfhaven.org or Bat World Sanctuary at www.batworld.org., “and be sure to tell the ones you love how much you love them.”
Staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report. Carol M. Ostrom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom.