Wyoming orthopaedist makes history
“Thank God every day that you live in the United States.”
That’s the advice that John A. Barrasso, MD, remembers receiving from his father, a World War II veteran who saw action at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge.
In tribute, Dr. Barrasso carried his father’s dog tags with him as he was sworn into office as a U.S. Senator on Monday, June 25. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman, administered the oath.
“To be sworn in by the vice-president of the United States in the Senate Chambers, what a humbling experience,” said Dr.—now Sen.—Barrasso. “It just really was overwhelming.”
First in the Senate
Although Rep. Thomas E. Price, MD (R-Ga.), is the first orthopaedic surgeon ever elected to Congress, Sen. Barrasso is the first orthopaedic surgeon to serve in the U.S. Senate. He is one of two physicians now serving in the Senate; the other, Sen. Tom Coburn, MD (R-Okla.), is a family physician who provided obstetric care in rural Oklahoma.
Appointed by Wyoming’s Gov. Dave Freudenthal to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Craig L. Thomas, who was being treated for leukemia, Sen. Barrasso is no stranger to the political process. He has been politically active for many years and spent almost five years in the Wyoming State Senate.
He has also been active in the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), attending the National Orthopaedic Leadership Conference for several years and serving as secretary of the Political Action Committee (PAC) of the AAOS. “I know that the PAC community was pretty happy about this appointment,” he said.
As PAC secretary, Dr. Barrasso worked closely with David Lovett, JD, director of the AAOS Washington, D.C., office.
“Sen. Barrasso is very personable and inspiring,” Lovett said. “He’s been working in politics for a very long time and was a leader in the statehouse. We look forward to working with him on a number of the critical healthcare issues facing the orthopaedic community.”
His appointment lasts only until a special election in November 2008 that will determine who will fill out the remainder of the term through 2012. Sen. Barrasso plans to run.
“A bit of a whirlwind”
The past few weeks have been “a bit of a whirlwind,” Sen. Barrasso said.
First there was the selection process itself. The original field of 31 candidates for the vacancy had to be pared to three nominees who were presented to the governor by the state Republican Party.
“The process involved traveling all around the state visiting different party members,” Sen. Barrasso explained.
The governor then interviewed the three finalists before making his decision. When the “thumbs-up” phone call came, an elated Sen. Barrasso informed friends and family of the appointment and announced the news during an afternoon press conference. The rest of the day was spent fielding phone calls from Vice President Cheney, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), William H. Frist, MD of Tennessee, and others.
Just three days later, Sen. Barrasso was in Washington, D.C.—taking the oath of office on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Republican leaders met with him that morning to welcome him and pose for photos.
“I’ve never seen that many cameras and that much flashing in my life,” he said.
Sen. Enzi presented him with a daily prayer devotional, One Quiet Moment, written by the Senate chaplain. “In the inscription, he wrote how [the prayer] has helped him to this day,” Sen. Barrasso said.
Following the swearing-in, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a short speech welcoming Dr. Barrasso, calling him an “outstanding choice.”
“Given the average age of this institution, it’s certainly good to have another physician—an orthopaedic surgeon particularly,” Sen. McConnell joked.
The rest of the week was spent meeting with Senate leaders, attending welcome receptions, and being trained by Senate officials on topics from ethics to his office budget. He also sat for numerous media interviews and greeted visitors, all while running back and forth to cast votes.
Sen. Barrasso—who says he plans to “live in Wyoming and work in Washington, D.C.”—has also launched a 23-county tour to better acquaint himself with his constituents.
A consensus builder
Upon learning of Dr. Barrasso’s appointment, Sen. Enzi spoke highly to his colleagues about the new senator.
“John is a capable person with legislative experience,” he said. “He knows the process. He can work across the aisle. He is quiet, capable and efficient…and his medical background will be a huge help here.”
During his service in the state legislature, Sen. Barrasso actively worked on healthcare issues. He sponsored the state’s “I’m sorry” legislation, which enables physicians to speak freely with patients in the event of an unforeseen complication without worrying about whether their words will be used against them during a medical liability lawsuit.
He also has the reputation of being “technology-savvy”—reading and answering e-mail, and using a laptop computer—and paying great attention to detail.
“I believe in limited government, lower taxes, less spending, traditional family values, local control, and a strong national defense,” he wrote in his application to succeed Sen. Thomas. “I have the legislative experience to hit the ground running.”
The rookie senator plans to carry on Sen. Thomas’s legacy on several issues—especially a rural health bill that was renamed in Thomas’s honor after his death.
“I really want to use my background in medicine to help rural Wyoming with healthcare issues such as access to care and affordable care—making sure it’s available and high quality,” he said.
Sen. Barrasso will take over three of the five committee seats previously held by Sen. Thomas: Energy and Natural Resources, Indian Affairs, and Environment and Public Works.
Wyoming’s “healthcare cheerleader”
Although the level of attention he’s receiving now feels “overwhelming,” the new senator is no stranger to the spotlight. For the past 25 years, he served as Wyoming’s resident “healthcare cheerleader.”
Appearing in numerous television appearances and radio spots—and writing a weekly newspaper column, “Keeping Wyoming Healthy”—Dr. Barrasso urged residents to take responsibility for their health. He was also a perennial host for the local Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, with more than 20 years of service.
The media appearances helped Dr. Barrasso develop wide name recognition, as did a previous run for the U.S. Senate. Although he lost the 1996 Republican primary to Mike Enzi, now the state’s senior senator, Dr. Barrasso continued to campaign on Enzi’s behalf.
In 2002, Dr. Barrasso was elected to the Wyoming State Senate, where he quickly made a name for himself, becoming chair of the state’s Transportation, Highways, and Military Affairs Committee.
During his many years as a media figure, Dr. Barrasso encouraged people to take an active role in their own health care. He would like to preach a similar message in the U.S. Senate. “My philosophy for government is ‘Helping people help themselves,’” he said.
Until the day he left for Washington, D.C., Dr. Barrasso was still a practicing orthopaedic surgeon—part of a seven-member orthopaedic group based in Casper, Wyo.
How was he able to balance his roles as state senator and practicing orthopaedist?
“Wyoming is one of the few U.S. states that still has a true, part-time ‘citizen’s legislature,’” he explained. “That’s what made it possible for me to keep active as an orthopaedic surgeon.”
The Wyoming legislature meets for a 40-day session during odd-numbered years and for 20 days in even-numbered years.
“Fortunately, my partners covered for me when I was serving in the legislature,” he said. “And I covered for them when they went hunting.”
But because U.S. Senate ethics rules prevent senators from holding other for-profit jobs while in office, Sen. Barrasso will put his medical career on hold.
“My partners are ready to take up the slack while I’m away,” he said.
Not only are they filling in for him, they are as excited as he is about his opportunity to serve in the Senate. According to John D. Bailey, MD, one of his partners, “John has dreamed of working for the people of Wyoming in Washington for many years. His knowledge of front-line orthopaedics—uncompensated trauma care, access to adequate specialty care, inadequate numbers of physicians, and inadequate funding of government-funded health care and research—will give him an opportunity to bring that message to colleagues on the Hill. He will require all of our support and encouragement as he works for change.”
Sen. Barrasso’s interest in politics and government took root early. He learned from his father, a cement finisher, the importance of education and hard work. As a high school student, he attended Presidential Classroom—a nonprofit, nonpartisan program that brings promising young people to Washington, D.C., for one week to witness the federal government at work and interact with influential leaders and policy makers.
The experience turned him into a lifelong champion of Presidential Classroom. He served as chairman of its board of directors for eight years, and both of his children have participated in the program.
“I actually began my first day ‘on the job’ by having breakfast with three Wyoming students who happened to be in town with Presidential Classroom,” Sen. Barrasso said.
He remained involved with student political activities while attending medical school at Georgetown University and during his orthopaedic residency at Yale. But how did the Berks, Pa., native end up in Wyoming?
“I went on a camping trip in Wyoming in 1974, and I thought ‘This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen—I want to live here some day,’” he said. So, shortly after completing his residency, he packed up and headed west to Wyoming—the state he’s called “home” for the past 25 years.
The orthopaedic perspective
As any orthopaedic surgeon can attest, everyone has an orthopaedic ailment or story to share. It’s no different in the Senate.
“Members of the Senate have aches and pain too, and they’ve been visiting me about shoulders and hips,” Sen. Barrasso said. “One member talked about her hip operation, and another wanted me to look at his wrist. I also checked out a couple of rotator cuff repairs.”
On the walk over to the Senate floor to vote on the immigration bill, he chatted with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “He was telling me about some of his war injuries and the way his bones had healed,” Sen. Barrasso recalled. “He had asked if I had seen his X-rays. We had a nice visit.”
Bringing the background of an orthopaedic surgeon to the Senate has other advantages too.
“The orthopaedic mentality of wanting to ‘fix the fracture’ is ideal for the Senate,” Sen. Barrasso said. “I’ll have that same resolve to keep working on something until it’s ‘fixed.’”
In one of his first statements before the Senate, during the debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, Sen. Barrasso noted that it was 3 a.m. at “home,” and that “as a physician, an ortho-
paedic surgeon, a trauma surgeon, I am used to getting up at this hour and working at all unusual hours.”
He also referenced a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I was able to visit the troops, the wounded warriors, because I wanted to make sure—both as a state senator and as an orthopaedic surgeon—that those folks were getting the kind of care they deserved. What I saw,” he said, “were hero warriors—people who had lost a limb or two limbs, [who] wanted to do anything they could to get back with their buddies.”
Although thrilled this new opportunity, Sen. Barrasso says he will miss life as an orthopaedic surgeon.
“I really love seeing so many people from so many different backgrounds in a given day,” he says. “It’s not unusual for us to see 40 to 50 patients in a day.
“As a physician, I can do a lot for people on an individual basis. In the Senate, we’re able to help a lot of people, but we don’t really get to see the end results.”
Carolyn Rogers is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.