Paul Auerbach, wilderness-medicine pioneer, dies at 70

Paul Auerbach, a professor emeritus of emergency medicine at Stanford, led a life of inspiration, adventure and compassion, according to his colleagues.

- By Tracie White, Susan Coppa

Paul Auerbach

Paul Auerbach, MD, who provided a voice of calm and expertise in countless disasters, died June 23 of brain cancer at his home in Los Altos, California, surrounded by family. He was 70.

One of the founders of wilderness medicine, Auerbach, a longtime professor of emergency medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, researched and advocated for sports head injury prevention, wrote about climate change and its effect on health, and was an expert in disaster medicine. A “larger than life” figure, according to colleagues and family, Auerbach was an adventurer at heart.

“We always joked that it was either my dad helping people in the ER or my dad himself finding his way into the ER,” said his son Danny Auerbach, recalling some of his father’s injuries and heroics: breaking an ankle while jogging in the Sierra Nevada mountains and making his own splint; slashing his arm climbing through the back of a car window to rescue an injured driver.

“He was an adventurer in all its glory,” he added.

Family and friends said Auerbach was a man who would always come to the aid of someone in need of help.

“Paul will be remembered for his compassionate care of patients, his leadership in the field of wilderness medicine, his role as a mentor to medical students and residents, and his determination to accomplish what he set his mind to,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “His courage and humility left an indelible impact on not only the Stanford Medicine community, but people all around the world.”

Paul Auerbach carries a boy to a clinic after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

Auerbach, the Redlich Family Professor, Emeritus, garnered a long list of accomplishments beginning early in his career as a medical resident when he first envisioned what remains the quintessential textbook for wilderness medicine. It’s now titled Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine and in its seventh edition. He also helped create the Wilderness Medical Society.

“He was a living legend,” said Andra Blomkalns, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Stanford, who had heard of Auerbach years before meeting him, when she was still an emergency medicine resident. “A lot of famous people take advantage of and wallow in their famousness. Not Paul. He prided himself on doing unusual things, heroic things, challenging things and saving lives. He lived life’s adventure to the absolute fullest.”

When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010 and the chief of emergency medicine asked Auerbach if he would consider traveling there to provide medical support, he said, “We have to go,” and left right away. The experience profoundly changed him and turned his attention to disaster medicine. It motivated him to create, in 2010, the Stanford Emergency Medicine Program for Emergency Response, which provides aid and care to thousands around the world. The program assembles and rapidly deploys teams of Stanford physicians and nurses to disaster sites, such as an earthquake in Nepal in 2015 and the California wildfires of 2018.

‘He did not twiddle his thumbs, ever’

In more recent years, he focused on educating physicians and other health care workers on how global climate change is harming humans. He remained active in the field until death. He co-authored Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health in 2017. He wrote two more books on wilderness medicine and co-authored numerous articles on emergency medicine, hazardous marine animals and scuba diving, and he published two books of underwater photography.

Auerbach was a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, served on the National Medical Committee for the National Ski Patrol System, and was an active and award-winning member of the Divers Alert Network, dedicated to improving diving safety for all divers.

“Paul led and taught others in both word and action,” said Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, the Naddisy Foundation Professor in Pediatric Food Allergy, Immunology, and Asthma. “He did not twiddle his thumbs, ever.”

Throughout his life, he combined his passion for his work with his family life, traveling around the world with his wife, Sherry, and their three children.

“Family was everything to him,” said Danny Auerbach. But his father was always ready to use his medical training when needed.

Snake bites, drownings, lightning strikes, lots of trauma, infectious diseases. That was wilderness medicine. 

“The one story I’ll never forget: We were driving down the highway going to an all-star Little League game, and we saw a car that was flipped over. Dad pulled over and called a coach to come get us. He showed up later at the baseball game, his arm all wrapped up in gauze. He’d crawled through the back window, cutting up his arm to save the guy in the car.”

Born in 1951 in New Jersey, Auerbach earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Duke University, where he also graduated from medical school. He completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he met his wife, who was studying to become a physical therapist. He also completed a master’s degree in management as a Sloan fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

It was during an internship as a medical student on an Indian reservation in Montana that he first fell in love with wilderness medicine.

“We saw all kinds of cases I would never have seen anywhere else,” he said. “Snake bites, drownings, lightning strikes, lots of trauma, infectious diseases. That was wilderness medicine. Taking care of patients. I just thoroughly enjoyed it.”

His last mission

A few weeks prior to his scheduled retirement last year, Auerbach flew to Hawaii on a search-and-rescue mission. The mission failed, but something else went terribly wrong. He called Nadeau when he returned and talked to her about it.

“He said something weird happened when he went to Hawaii,” Nadeau said. “While he was doing a search and rescue for someone else, he himself got lost. When he got back home, he went to Stanford, got a scan, and they found the tumor. We were struck with deep sadness.” During the following year, Auerbach underwent surgeries and treatments battling glioblastoma. He remained positive to the end.

“People would call him knowing he had this huge tumor excised from his right frontal lobe, and he would sound great on the phone,” said Sherry Auerbach, his wife of 38 years. “He tried to work all the way up to the end. He had more brains than most people, so I guess if he lost some it didn’t make much difference.”

Auerbach retired from Stanford on Jan. 3. In an interview two months before his death, he talked about his career and how personal experience helped him train countless emergency medicine physicians over the years.

“I had a patient who we fished out of the bay near Pier 39,” he said, relating a case from when he was working at San Francisco General Hospital many years before. “He was a drowning victim. I stuck tubes in everywhere trying to warm him up. He died.” Afterward, the coroner, who knew Paul well and liked to tease him, called him up and asked, “What were you thinking? I never saw somebody with so many tubes in him.” Paul waited for him to finish.

“Did you look behind his ear?” the coroner asked him. “Did you see the gunshot behind his ear?”

“I missed that one,” Auerbach replied. During the interview, he smiled and shrugged. It was a hard lesson in humility, he said, one that he often shared with his trainees.

“You have to be afraid when you go into work,” he said. “You have to get afraid that you’re going to get complacent. There’s always someone with a bullet hole behind the ear just waiting to slip you up. So you’ve got to stay humble.”

In addition to his wife and son Danny, Auerbach is survived by son Brian and his daughter, Lauren, who is completing her emergency medicine residency at Louisiana State University.

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