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Heroes of health care: Dr. Annabel Barber and Dr. Robert Wang, general surgeon and oncologist
Story by Chantal Corcoran and
Photography by Bill Hughes
Teaming up on a tough case, this medical couple ensured the show would go on for a Strip musician
Dr. Annabel Barber is a general surgeon who subspecializes in oncology. Dr. Robert Wang is a head and neck cancer specialist. The two share an office at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, although they’re not often there at the same time; naturally, they’re both very busy. Occasionally, they teach together, do research together or write papers together. On Wednesdays, they assist each other in surgeries. Oh, and they’ve been married for 25 years.
Barber grew up in Texas, although she’s originally from Mississippi. Wang is a New Yorker. They met “Grey’s Anatomy”-style when Wang, having completed his ear, nose and throat studies at Harvard Medical School, was doing his fellowship in head and neck cancer surgeries at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which is where Barber was doing a rotation as a fourth-year student of the University of Texas Medical School. They wrote their first paper together and were married three years later. “It’s a good relationship to have,” says Wang.
And not just because they get to spend a lot of time together in a demanding field. Barber points to the professional advantages. “We’re able to bridge techniques, the way we think about things. I’m like, ‘Hey, you might want to try this instrument that you might not be familiar with in doing this operation.’” She adds, “I think that my husband and I are able to do a lot of big operations ... because we know we can count on each other.”
Big operations such as a complicated, 10-hour surgery they performed last spring. Wang’s patient, a trombone player in “Donny and Marie” at The Flamingo, had a rare and advanced thyroid cancer that was invading his trachea and had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck. With Barber assisting, Wang was able to take out the infected segment of the patient’s windpipe — a rare procedure in a most complicated portion of the anatomy that could easily have left the patient without his voice or the ability to continue playing his trombone — remove the cancer and put the windpipe back together again.
“Within four to six weeks, he was back playing the trombone. We just saw him perform. It was great,” says Wang.
When the couple operates together, one leads and the other assists, depending on the surgery.
“Interestingly enough, we don’t have too many disputes during surgery,” says Wang, because they are respectful of each other’s immense expertise and experience.
The more serious challenge the surgeons face is outside the operating room: “As a physician who practices here, you have to question each bit of information that you get,” says Barber, who commonly operates on breast cancer and colon cancer patients, and is also head of the Nevada chapter of the American College of Surgeons. That’s because of the instability of the medical system here. She’s referring to the habit that many of our large healthcare providers have of routinely changing insurance contractors, which necessitates that patients jump from place to place each year for their cancer screening services. “So, your same doctors are not comparing your mammogram from last year with this year.”
This irregularity in Southern Nevada increases the odds that something — in this case, something being cancer — will slip through the cracks.
“That’s what we fear. It’s the biggest fear,” says Barber, who copes with the extra responsibility this entails of her with a shrug and a smile. “It’s the wild, wild west.”
As much as they believe in teamwork, the docs also believe in a sense of humor and a positive attitude toward fighting cancer and healing. “It helps people to deal with very the serious and awful things, if you can find something to laugh about,” says Barber. “You’ve got to laugh. I’m being serious.”
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