The Stanford Medicine professor was well known for his friendly presence as well as expertise in neuroanesthesia and operating room technology.
July 19, 2023 - By Jennifer Welsh
Richard Jaffe, MD, PhD, a professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine and the chief of neuroanesthesia at Stanford School of Medicine, died at Stanford Hospital from a progressive disease on June 12. He was 75.
Jaffe was well known for his authoritative anesthesiology textbook and expertise in anesthesiology during specialized neurosurgery to treat moyamoya disease.
“Richard Jaffe’s skill as an anesthesiologist was instrumental in the successful treatment of thousands of neurosurgery patients,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “He was also incredibly devoted to his residents and their education. He will be dearly missed.”
Jaffe was a remarkable physician and beloved teacher, his colleagues said. He was well respected by surgeons and anesthesiologists alike.
“Richard was always looking for ways to improve clinical care, the department, the hospital and the medical school,” said Ronald Pearl, MD, PhD, professor of anesthesiology and chair of the anesthesia department from 1999 until 2021. “He created a leading neuroanesthesia division that has saved countless lives and trained hundreds of anesthesia residents not only to provide safe neuroanesthesia but how to think through problems that occur in the operating room.”
A giant in anesthesiology
Jaffe’s specialty was administering anesthesia during a type of surgery called extracranial to intracranial bypass performed by Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, to treat moyamoya disease, caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain. Together they treated thousands of people with this specialized neurosurgery, his colleagues said.
“Richard was universally recognized as an exceptional neuroanesthesiologist who could successfully do the most challenging cases and have superb outcomes,” Pearl said.
He was also often the first to test out new technology in the operating room, be it a new ultrasound machine or robotic surgery.
“For the faculty, he was a person people would go to for advice on clinical matters,” said John Brock-Utne, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of anesthesiology. “For the residents, he was an icon among their teachers.”
To his patients, he was a comfort: “When Dr. Jaffe introduced himself to an anxious patient waiting to roll back for surgery, you could just see them relax and become more at ease as he cracked charming jokes,” said Sarah Stone, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology. “When we sent patients off to sleep, he would tell them that if he started looking like Brad Pitt, the medication was working.”
Jaffe published hundreds of peer reviewed papers in scientific journals and presented at many conferences as a researcher and as a physician. He also described interesting clinical cases along with new technologies and improved anesthesia, surgical and sterility procedures. The textbook he wrote and edited, The Anesthesiologist’s Manual of Surgical Procedures, is now in its fifth edition.
“Jaffe was extremely well known worldwide for his work in neuroanesthesia, particularly for his textbook. It was one of the first textbooks I purchased as a resident many years ago,” said Brian Bateman, MD, current chair of the anesthesiology department. “He was particularly beloved as a teacher of the residents — known for his teaching in the operating room and as someone the residents respected tremendously.”
“Jaffe had the most impressive resume. But if you were to meet him, you wouldn’t have known — you would have thought he was just some nice, older gentleman,” Stone said. “He was just very humble, approachable, unassuming.”
A late start in medicine
Born in Alameda, California, on Sept. 22, 1947, Jaffe spent much of his early life in the East Bay near Hayward. His mother was a housewife, and his father was a salesman, according to his wife, Judy Jaffe.
Jaffe earned a bachelor’s degree in vertebrate zoology from the University of California,Berkeley. In 1971 he earned a master’s in biology from California State University, East Bay, and in 1976 a PhD in neurophysiology from UC San Francisco, where he and Judy met.
He became an assistant professor of physiology at Washington State University Tri-Cities as well as director of the neurophysiology laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He was promoted to associate professor of physiology in 1981.
Relatively late in life, when he was 36 in 1983, Jaffe decided to switch to medicine. He earned his medical degree from the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami; interned for one year at Providence St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, Oregon; and joined Stanford Medicine as a resident in 1988.
Jaffe became an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the Stanford School of Medicine in 1989. In 1994 he was appointed chief of neurosurgical anesthesia, and in 1995 was promoted to associate professor. He became full professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicinein 2000.
“He loved his job and coming to work — the work was really important and meaningful to him,”Stone said. “He loved to teach more than anything.”
He was never pompous and had a great sense of humor as well as a magical, engaging personality, his colleagues said.
“He was friends with everyone — the cleaning staff, the nurses, physicians and people who run our computer system that he’s never met in person,” Stone said. “Everyone knew who he was. And everyone knew he was obsessed with chocolate and baked goods.” He was well known for sneaking into the anesthesia breakroom, slicing off the tops of chocolate glazed doughnuts with surgical precision, and leaving the remaining doughnut behind.
Jaffe became sick in 2020, but as his illness progressed, he didn’t retire. In the weeks and months before his death, his colleagues still relied on him to solve complex cases and diagnose ailing ventilators over the phone.
“He didn’t want anyone to see how bad his illness was,” Judy Jaffe said. “It was amazing — he could go from feeling really bad, and then somebody from work would call, and he would just be his regular old hardy self, all full of energy and smarts.”
Just weeks before his death, Jaffe and co-author Brock-Utne had an article published in Anesthesiology News about their years-long fight to revise guidance regarding the storage of intravenous bags that have had anesthesia medicine added to them. The guidance had been to dispose of these bags after one hour at room temperature. That guidance was revised to 24 hours after their research showed that the bags do not pose an infection risk even after nine days at room temperature. The new guidance helped improve patient care and saved hospitals a lot of time and money, Brock-Utne said.
A tinkerer and jokester
During their decades of marriage, the Jaffes loved to travel, visiting Europe and Hawaii and driving to the Oregon coast for three weeks every year. They would stop at favorite hiking spots and beaches with their dog, Zoe, and had a bumper sticker reading, “My Dog is My Copilot.” Bandon, Oregon, where they would walk for hours on the beach, was a favorite spot.
At his home in Stanford, Jaffe loved gardening. He did woodwork and metalwork and took nature photos. He was also a certified magician and a pilot. He was very mechanically inclined, Judy Jaffe said — always tinkering with things around the house.
“He built furniture on the spur of the moment,” she said. “If I said I wanted a table, he’d grab some spare parts, go into the garage and come out with a beautiful table three hours later.”
She added that he was also always a jokester with a twinkle in his eye. “He’d pull things over on you without you even noticing it,” she said.
Jaffe won the H.B. Fairley Teaching Excellence Award in 1994, 2011 and 2012. He was a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the International Anesthesia Research Society and the Society for Neuroscience in Anesthesiology and Critical Care.
Jaffe is survived by his wife, of Stanford; a stepson; a step-daughter-in-law; and one step-granddaughter. His two half siblings preceded him in death, but many nieces, nephews and cousins survive him.
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