They don’t make doctors like Jay Karpa anymore. Just ask Karen Levin, his assistant for 38 years.
“He would spend hours sitting and talking to a patient,” said Levin, a nurse who was Karpa’s assistant in private practice. “He was a rare soul, and they just don’t make them like that anymore.”
Karpa succumbed to prostate cancer in his Pikesville home on June 6 at the age of 79. He left a legacy as a caring, gentle family man and surgeon, and a dedicated Jew.
“He was a real mensch, always took the high road,” said Michael Karpa of Owings Mills, an anesthesiologist and one of Karpa’s four children. “He was just very understanding and a very calm, gentle man.”
Jay Norman Karpa was born on Feb. 6, 1935 to Isador and Dora Karpa. He attended school in Baltimore and graduated from Baltimore City College’s college preparatory course in 1952. He attended Johns Hopkins University and earned his bachelor’s degree in two-and-a-half years, graduating with general and departmental honors and as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
Karpa attended medical school at the University of Maryland from 1954 to 1958 and worked in a rotating internship and surgical residency under Dr. Arnold Seligman from 1958 to 1964. He married Elizabeth Jane Spindel in 1960.
He worked in private practice as a general surgeon, practicing at Sinai Hopsital, Northwest Hospital and North Charles General Hospital, which is now part of the Johns Hopkins School of Education. He was chief of surgery at North Charles General Hospital from 1982 to 1984, was a diplomat of the American Board of Surgery and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
“What set him apart from his colleagues, from a medical perspective, was his remarkable diagnostic abilities and his innovative nature,” Dr. Alan Davis, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Northwest who knew Karpa for more than 25 years, said via email. “He was a remarkably skilled surgeon who always remained calm in the most challenging situations, both inside and outside of the operating room.”
Karpa was certified in wound care and was the chairman of the wound clinic at Northwest, where he forged the hyperbaric oxygen therapy program. Karpa also served as a surgical consultant to several psychiatric hospitals and to the Social Security Administration.
“He just loved what he did. I tried to get him to cut back in the last couple of years,” Michael Karpa said. “I’d say, ‘Dad, do you want the day before you die to be a regular work day?’ and he just smiled at me and said, ‘God willing.’”
Outside of his work, Karpa was a skilled pianist, having studied for eight years at Peabody Preparatory as a young man. “He could play anything put in front of him, but he enjoyed classical music the most,” Michael Karpa said.
He tackled home improvement projects and went scuba diving in the Caribbean. He took on an informal medical role as the neighborhood doctor, helping out neighbors and friends when they were injured.
He was also a lifelong member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, which he joined when he was 5 years old.
“He came to synagogue because he was a committed, dedicated Jew,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “You could see him in his seat and he was davening.”
Wohlberg knew Karpa’s reputation as a devoted surgeon who took great joy in working with his patients. He never drew any attention to himself at synagogue, Wohlberg said, only complaining once when a certain verse was left out of the Kol Nidre service. Although he was quiet, Wohlberg considers him a rarity among congregants.
“Those who understand what the synagogue is, these are the type who are not easily replaced,” he said.
Karpa was devoted in his home too, which he kept kosher, and instilled “all the tenants of Judaism in his kids,” Michael Karpa said. He recalls his father teaching his brother and him their Haftorahs for their bar mitzvahs.
“He’s always conducted the Passover Seder in its entirety in Hebrew in a tune that he’d done for his entire life, which his father did before that and his grandfather did before that,” Michael Karpa said. “His kids have the same sense of and connection to Judaism and … strong values and [are] very family-oriented people. It stems from him and mom.”
In addition to his wife and son, he survived by children Debra Lynn Lincoff, Lisa Michelle Litt and Jonathan Saul Karpa, sister Marcia Crossman and eight grandchildren.