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Barbara Van de Wiele, Anesthesiology

  • By Wendy Soderburg, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Oct 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Barbara Van de Wiele recently found herself in the intense glare of the media. She was the lead anesthesiologist in the separation surgery of the conjoined twins from Guatemala, an extremely complicated case that involved three different anesthesia procedures.

Two of the procedures - the neuroangiography and the placement of tissue expanders — took place weeks before the actual 22-hour separation surgery, for which Van de Wiele designed two teams that spelled each other in 12-hour shifts.

But complexities aside, Van de Wiele knows that what was at stake for the twins is the same for all her surgical patients: human lives that depend on her skills.

"This case got more media attention than other cases that we do, but that's all that separates it from the other cases," Van de Wiele said firmly. "Every time you take someone's child into the operating room for a resection of a brain tumor, you bring to bear the same expertise that we brought to this case, the same concern, the same focus. Really, it's not that different."

Born in New Haven, Conn., to a father who was an academic physician and a mother with a master's degree in chemistry, Van de Wiele seemed destined for a career in medicine or science. Now vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Anesthesiology, she has fulfilled that destiny.

Her initial preference, however, was the liberal arts. Van de Wiele remembers graduating from Smith College with a degree in English in 1977, not really knowing what she wanted to do with her life. One afternoon while walking in the woods with her father, he suggested she become either an architect, a lawyer or a doctor.

"It wasn't like I was told, 'These are your options.' It was just a discussion about the things he thought I might be good at," Van de Wiele explained. "Medicine was really attractive to me because it gave me an opportunity to have some sort of positive impact in the world."

While attending Columbia Medical School, Van de Wiele's first thought was to be a plastic reconstructive surgeon. While interning at UCLA, however, she met anesthesiologist John Bauer, who inspired her to pursue anesthesiology. But before she could start her residency at Columbia, her husband, an attorney, told her that he had gotten a job offer in Los Angeles. Back to Los Angeles they went, and Van de Wiele completed a three-year anesthesia residency and a one-year pediatric anesthesiology fellowship at UCLA. She joined the faculty here in 1989.

As a clinical professor in the Anesthesiology Department, Van de Wiele spends four days a week supervising residents in the operating room. With 26,000 anesthesia cases a year in more than 50 operating rooms at UCLA and at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, she ends up working about 11 hours a day, not including the times when she is on call. But she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've been given extraordinary opportunities," Van de Wiele said. "I find all aspects of my work — both the educational and patient-care aspects — rewarding."