The specialist in oculoplastic surgery performed reconstructive procedures in the developing world and mentored new faculty.
April 7, 2016 - By Sara Wykes
Lars Vistnes, MD, who survived the World War II occupation of his hometown and home in Norway to become a nationally recognized pioneer in oculoplastic surgery at Stanford Medicine, died March 28 in San Francisco of an abdominal aneurysm. He was 88.
Vistnes’ professional colleagues remembered him for his surgical skills, teaching ability and organizational leadership; his family knew him as patient, gentle and good-natured, despite a years-long struggle against failing eyesight caused by glaucoma. By the time he died, the emeritus professor of plastic surgery was almost completely blind.
Vistnes was born June 22, 1927, in Stavanger, Norway. His mother died when he was 3; his father died shortly thereafter. Older siblings raised him in the family home, which they shared during the war years with German soldiers who arrived after an aerial bombing of the town in 1940.
Medical student and bellboy
Bright and a good student, Vistnes was encouraged by his family to pursue higher education. After he graduated from high school, he went to Canada to live with an older sister and her husband in Saskatchewan so he could attend the university there. He earned a medical degree in 1957 from the University of Manitoba College of Medicine; he met his wife, Carol, while on summer break. “We were both working at the hotel at Lake Louise, near Banff, in the summers,” said Carol. “He worked there every summer, mostly as a bellboy — for the great tips — through medical school.” He also took advantage of the spectacular mountains that surround the hotel, she said, joining the Alpine Club of Canada and climbing the higher peaks, some of which top 10,000 feet.
After his medical school graduation, Vistnes served for three years as a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces. He arrived at Stanford in 1971, shortly after finishing a six-year residency in general and plastic surgery.
Vistnes was appointed acting assistant professor of surgery at the School of Medicine and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at what was then called the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Palo Alto. By 1980, he had become chief and program director of plastic surgery at Stanford; he later served as acting chair of the Department of Surgery. He was co-director of the faculty mentoring program from 1994 until his death.
‘A valued mentor’
“Year after year, Dr. Vistnes accepted new leadership challenges and responsibilities,” said Vincent Hentz, MD, professor emeritus of surgery, another former chief of the plastic surgery division. “He was instrumental in the development of the Stanford plastic surgery board review course and in the department’s evolution to include functional restoration in its mission. There were many retirement parties for him, but he remained a valued mentor at Stanford.”
Vistnes was especially known for a treatment he first created for veterans of the Vietnam War. “He found a way to reconstruct eye orbits and eyelids so veterans who had lost an eye in combat could be fitted with an aesthetic prosthetic eye instead of a patch or other poor disguise,” Hentz said. Vistnes also created the VA’s first oculoplastic clinic, Hentz said, “a clinic that still exists.”
Vistnes made other professional marks: He was the editor-in-chief of the Annals of Plastic Surgery from 1982 to 1992, and he wrote five books and 24 book chapters on aspects of plastic and reconstructive surgery.
He also served on the boards of the Plastic Surgery Educational Foundation, the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, the California Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Board of Plastic Surgeons. From 1993 to 2003, Vistnes was a board member of the Glaucoma Research Foundation.
Co-founder of Interplast
Vistnes was also a founding director of Interplast Inc., now known as ReSurge International, the first group to bring advanced reconstructive surgery to children and adults in countries that lacked it. “It was hard work, but he was part of a great team that accomplished rewarding results,” said his son, Richard. “The trips were a central part of his life’s mission as a doctor.” Vistnes made many Interplast trips to Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Samoa. Most of the medical settings were basic: In Samoa, Vistnes operated in the open air.
He also loved being a father and grandfather. “He liked to show people how to do things,” Richard said, “and he loved when the grandkids would come over. My wife remembers how when the kids were babies, if they were crying or fussing, he had this ability to pick one up, say a couple of words and they would just quiet down.”
One of those grandchildren, now a college sophomore, said Vistnes had been an important guide throughout his life. “He was often there when I had to make some kind of decision, even when I was really young,” Eric Vistnes said. “He was always there to help anyone who asked — and so humble even though he had done so many great things.”
In addition to his wife and son Richard, Vistnes is survived by his sons Dean of Redwood City, California, and Greg of Rockville, Maryland, as well as seven grandchildren.
Donations may be made in his memory to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, 251 Post St., Suite 600, San Francisco, CA, 94108.
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