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Surgeon, rodeo doctor and, now, senator

Former Yale resident John Barrasso is named to fill a senate vacancy.

Photo by U.S. Senate Photo Studio
As a resident in orthopaedic surgery at Yale, John Barrasso learned the importance of planning ahead, a lesson that has served him well in medicine and politics. In 2002 the Republican won a seat on Wyoming’s state senate and last fall he was appointed to

John A. Barrasso, M.D., HS ’83, the new Republican U.S. senator from Wyoming, recalls that when he was a resident at Yale from 1978 to 1983, his professors stressed the importance of having a plan before going into surgery. “They would tell us that if you don’t have a plan to begin with on how to solve the problem, you’ll have a much tougher time halfway though the operation,” he said.

This advice has served Barrasso well both as an orthopaedic surgeon and as a politician and civic activist. Early in his career, Barrasso’s plan was to provide health care for as many people as possible inside and outside the operating room. That plan culminated on June 25, when he was appointed by Gov. David Freudenthal to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the late Craig Thomas. “Affordable and available health care is a big issue in Wyoming,” he said. “It’s a rural state, and people are spread out. I want to help find ways to get health care to them.”

As a medical student at Georgetown University, Barrasso was already thinking about ways to broaden his impact on the public’s health care needs. He joined the American Medical Student Association, where he worked on issues related to preventive medicine and health care access.

He produced television and radio reports and newspaper articles on health and fitness for more than 20 years, and served as the medical director of Wyoming Health Fairs, a series of programs on preventive medicine held across the state. He presently writes a monthly series of articles on preventive health care for elders called “Caring for Wyoming’s Seniors.” He has also served as a rodeo physician for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and as a sports team physician for Casper College. In 2002 he ran for a seat in the Wyoming State Senate. “I knew I could help patients one-on-one in the office,” he said, “but I felt I could do more to help more people working legislatively.”

Barrasso, now 54, won the seat and was re-elected in 2006. His greatest accomplishment as a state senator, he said, was co-sponsoring the Hathaway Scholarships program, which gives eligible students scholarship money to attend the University of Wyoming or any state community college. “It was sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats and ultimately was signed by a Democratic governor and named for Republican governor [Stanley Hathaway],” Barrasso said. “It was the best of bipartisan support for a worthy public policy.”

An ongoing desire to broaden the scope of his influence compelled Barrasso to seek the vacant U.S. Senate seat. “I wanted to do on the national level what I had been doing on the state level,” he said, “provide quality education for kids, quality jobs for communities and health care accessibility for everyone.”

Gary E. Friedlaender, M.D., HS ’74, the Wayne O. Southwick Professor and chair of orthopaedics, met Barrasso during his training at Yale and has stayed in touch over the years. What characterized Barrasso as a resident, he said, was his “strong intellect and highly capable technical skills. As a house officer, he was a great physician who had compassion, commitment and ethical moral character.”

Barrasso says he supports “lower taxes, less spending, traditional family values, local control and a strong national defense.” In the state senate he received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, voted for prayer in schools, voted against gay marriage and sponsored legislation to protect the sanctity of life.

“In today’s world, his views would earn him a conservative label,” Friedlaender said, “but John is not inured to the needs of people, especially in terms of health care. I would describe his politics as thoughtful.”

In his new job as a U.S. senator, Barrasso serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee.

The senate seat Barrasso filled doesn’t come up for re-election until 2012, but Barrasso must run as the incumbent in a special election during the 2008 general election.

Friedlaender calls Barrasso’s ability to combine a health care mindset with his political skills a “powerful partnership. He’ll do more with it than the average individual,” he predicted.