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Retired, with scalpel in hand

Vascular surgeon, 79, spends his days helping others

August 22, 2011
By HARRY EAGAR - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

At age 79, vascular surgeon Dr. George Lavenson Jr. is still on call, all over the world. The Lahaina semiretiree just returned from three weeks working in American Samoa, and before that, he volunteered at the U.S. Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for two weeks.

Last year, he and his wife, Judy, volunteered in northern Guatemala, where their van was used as a shield by drug smugglers battling cops.

"One of the police was shot in the head," George Lavenson said.

Article Photos

Vascular surgeon Dr. George Lavenson Jr. tends to a patient on a medical mission to Guatemala, with his wife, Judy, assisting.

He'd like to go back, too, if the security situation improves.

"When I retired (five years ago), I thought I would sit on the beach, read books and look at girls," he said.

He would have preferred to have settled on Maui sooner. While working as an Army surgeon in Hawaii, he met civilian surgeon Dr. William Iaconetti, who invited him to join Maui Medical Group.

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Lavenson wanted to say yes, but he had four children to put through college and the economics of practicing medicine on Maui did not work for him - as they still don't for many younger doctors, which is why recruiting physicians and surgeons remains difficult.

Instead, he spent 20 years with the Army and then set up an independent practice in Central California.

"I am lucky. I get to do what I enjoy doing," said Lavenson, who is also lucky to still have a steady hand.

He was born in Tacoma, Wash., to an Army family, moved around and ended up at the University of Washington medical school.

Lavenson was a surgeon at an Army evacuation hospital in Vietnam in 1968-69, and he was called back to active service during the first Gulf War. He said he was thrilled to be back with his Army friends.

Today, the Army is again short of vascular surgeons, so the Society for Vascular Surgery organizes volunteers to help out. Lavenson has done three tours, for no pay, just airfare, to treat wounded GIs from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said he was gratified to see that some of the methods he and his colleagues helped develop in Vietnam to deal with combat injuries are still in use and that some of the papers he co-authored back then are still referenced in the care directives.

He also serves as a locum tenens (substitute) for vacationing surgeons, which is how he ended up in American Samoa for three weeks.

Judy, a medical technician, accompanied him to Guatemala and helped in the operating room.

While not working far afield, he continues to lobby for using ultrasound to screen for carotid artery stroke risk. Blockages of the carotid, which feeds blood to the brain, are the leading cause of crippling strokes, and he believes a cheap, simple screen could lead to effective prevention in asymptomatic patients, saving lives and money. But to date, Medicare is uninterested, he said.

Meanwhile, he's on call, and if he cannot go back to Guatemala, he has a lead on a surgical mission to Ecuador.

* Harry Eagar can be reached at



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