For more than 30 years, Joan Anderson felt miserable — sometimes for hours, sometimes for days.
All too often, her seemingly ever-present nausea graduated into nearly uncontrollable vomiting or retching. Hospitalizations became commonplace.
She is one of about 5 million Americans diagnosed with gastroparesis, a stomach disorder in which food is digested more slowly than normal. In a typical digestive system, muscular contractions move food from the stomach through the digestive tract. But with gastroparesis, the stomach muscles work poorly or not at all, so that the stomach does not empty properly. So serious is the resulting nausea and vomiting that standard medication can’t control the condition, which often is caused by Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Sometimes, the cause is unknown.
A Type 1 diabetic, Anderson will tell you that 22 months ago Dr. Annabel Barber, a professor and chief of the UNLV School of Medicine's division of endocrine and gastrointestinal service, “single-handedly turned my life around, gave me a life again.”
“I thank God every night for her,” Anderson said.
In the two-hour robotic procedure, Barber combined the surgical implantation of a gastric electrical neurostimulation system with a pyloroplasty. In lay terms, she inserted a small medical device called a neurostimulator into Anderson’s abdominal region — it sends electrical pulses to stimulate the smooth muscles of the lower stomach to help control nausea and vomiting — and she also widened the plylorus, an opening near the end of the stomach that allows food to flow into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine.
“I’m so glad she’s doing better,” said Barber, who trains other doctors in the surgery. “That’s one of the things I like about being a surgeon. You can make a big difference very quickly.”
Anderson says she’s never seen a doctor with more compassion.
“I haven’t had to go to a hospital since that last procedure with Dr. Barber,” said Anderson, who often could not work because of her condition. “She developed a Mediterranean diet for me. She’s the first doctor who really listened to me. I now have an abundance of energy. I can work. It's amazing. All because of Dr. Barber.”
Andrew Dawe, a representative of Medtronic, the company that makes the Enterra neurostimulator, said that about 24 months ago it became standard of care to have the device and the pyroplasty done simultaneously.
“The results are better,” said Dawe, who noted Barber is the top surgeon for the procedures in the West, including California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. “She has people coming from everywhere to see her. She’s one of the top 15 surgeons in America handling gastroparesis. She’s one of the few that does it all robotically. Her patients can often go home the same day. Few surgeons have her skill.”
Barber graduated from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. She completed her general surgery residency at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical College, where she was also a research fellow in surgical nutrition and metabolism. She has served as chief of general surgery clinics at University Medical Center and as chief of staff at MountainView Hospital, where she was also chief of general surgery.
A native of Mississippi — her father was an appellate court judge there and her mother founded a community theater in Hattiesburg — Barber moved with family to East Texas, where she had a high school biology teacher who sparked her interest in science. That interest was fueled even more at Mary Baldwin College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
“My biology professor floated the idea of applying to medical school,” Barber recalled. “Another woman in my class and I drove 30 miles early one morning to Charlottesville to the MCAT with no preparation. I thought, 'Why not ?' We ended up finishing first and second in our graduating class and both accepted positions at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.”
Barber has been married for 32 years to Dr. Robert Wang, a professor and chair of otolaryngology (ENT) at the UNLV School of Medicine. The pair, who have two sons, met in Texas. “I used to operate with my husband one day a week,” she said. “We don’t operate together as much as we used to.”
Wang runs the sole head and neck tumor board in Las Vegas, performing robotic-assisted as well as laser surgery for cancers.
Prior to her 1997 arrival in Las Vegas, Barber and her husband were affiliated with the Texas Tech Health Science Center department of surgery. Barber is well aware that few female physicians go into surgery. According to studies, only about 19 percent of American surgeons are women.
“I’m fortunate that my husband gets it,” said Barber, who noted that nannies become important in the raising of children when the parents are surgeons who don’t have complete control of their time. “A lot of people don’t want to commit so much time. I was fortunate that my sister became a nanny I could trust.”
As a general surgeon, Barber does all kinds of procedures, ranging from breast cancer and colon cancer surgeries to hernia repair and gallbladder removal. A past president of the Nevada chapter of the American College of Surgeons, Barber performs community service work including working with indigent women with breast cancer, performing health screening for seniors, and engaging with support groups for black women with breast cancer.
“When I’m able to help people, someone like Joan Anderson, enjoy a good quality of life through my surgery, I find it very satisfying,” Barber said. “I’m always teaching in the operating room as well, so it feels good that I’m passing something positive on.”