A lifetime of passion

BY BEN MARKS | JUNE 23, 2015 5:00 AM

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Barbara Latenser had many passions in life, but beyond her patients, her greatest passion was perhaps her love of travel.

During her life, Latenser visited every continent except Antarctica, and many of the places she visited she did so as a doctor, helping everyone from burn victims in Katete, Zambia, to victims of the Bosnian War to Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

Latenser was the former University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Burn Treatment Center director, and on June 15, she died after a two-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer.

When Karen Gano recalls her, she remembers a woman whose passion and determination never dwindled over their 25-year friendship, even after her diagnosis.

“She was a very determined person who had a very strong will to live,” Gano said. “She was a physician, and she knew her diagnosis was a bad one, but she was determined to live the rest of her life like she did prior to her diagnosis.”

In 2012, Latenser was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a common and aggressive form of brain cancer.

Despite 90 percent of patients diagnosed with glioblastoma dying within one year, Latenser spent the majority of her time crossing items off her bucket list in countries from Cambodia to Australia.

“For most people, that would be a demanding journey, and here is someone who had already outlived her prognosis, and she just kept going like the Energizer Bunny,” Gano said.

Gano met Latenser in 1990 at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, now the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy, when Latenser went there as a trauma surgeon.

Beyond medicine, however, Gano remembers Latenser’s talent for playing piano, her fondness for reading, movies, restoring her turn-of-the-century home, and her pearly rose Porsche.

While she was at Mercy, Latenser also volunteered with Operation Safety Net, a Pittsburgh Mercy Health System program that brings medical care to people living on the streets.

Jim Withers, the founder and medical director of the program, met Latenser while they were both on faculty at Mercy.

Shortly afterward, Latenser began volunteering with Safety Net, and Withers recalled she even bought a car that would allow her to get into the various homeless campsites around Pittsburgh.

“The folks on the street loved her,” he said. “She was a surgeon and a doctor, but she was also a people person.”

Withers also said Latenser provided a lot of life counseling to him and many others.

“She was just very affirming of other people, very positive,” he said. “She had a lot of her own challenges through her own life, and she gave life and meaning a lot of thought.”

In the late-90s, Latenser left Pittsburgh to work as the director of burn trauma at the former Cook County Hospital in Chicago, now the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County.

“I met her in the burn unit; I was a fellow in trauma and critical care, and she was running the entire burn unit by herself 24-7-365,” Stroger Hospital attending physician Dorion Wiley said. “I don’t think she’d had a single day off in several years.

“There was absolutely nothing she wouldn’t do for a patient. She had a cot in her office because quite often she’d sleep there and get up at the wee hours of the morning and start again.”

In 2004, Latenser moved to Iowa City after accepting the job of Burn Center director at the UIHC.
UIHC nurse Becky Jallo-Knorrek remembers Latenser’s relationship with the nursing staff.

“She was a nurse; that’s how she started, and I don’t think she ever forgot what it was like,” Jallo-Knorrek said. “She would always go up to the nurse caring for her patients and ask what else she could do. That’s just a really nice thing to do; no other doctor I’ve worked with does that.”

At the UIHC in 2008, Latenser met now-medical student Jason Heard.

Heard is a burn survivor and was treated at UIHC. Several years after, when he was touring the UI as a potential undergrad, he visited the burn unit nurses who took care of him and was introduced to Latenser.

Heard traveled to Zambia with Latenser, where she spent hours in the burn warn playing with the children there.

“She’s always looked out for me; she’s kind of like a mom to me,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to go into medicine since I was burned myself, and she really solidified my interest in burn medicine as well as international medicine. When I establish myself as a surgeon, I’m definitely going to continue her efforts.”

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