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Stanford Report, June 19, 2002

Father-son anesthesiologists traveled far to practice medicine in the same hospital


Arne Brock-Utne, MD, grew up thinking that his dad did interesting work. "I always thought he had a cool job," he said. Despite that, the second-year Stanford Hospital anesthesia resident never expected to be doing his dad's job one day.

Brock-Utne's career took an indirect route to get from his childhood home in South Africa to a residency in the same department as his father at Stanford. His dad, John Brock-Utne, MD, PhD, professor of anesthesia, is thrilled to have his son following in his footsteps though he didn't encourage any of his children to become doctors. "I didn't care what career my kids chose," he said. "I just wanted my kids to be happy."

John Brock-Utne (right) taught at a South African school that accepted black students during apartheid, counting Steven Biko among his students. Brock-Utne's son Arne is also a Stanford anesthesiologist.

The Brock-Utnes first came to California when John Brock-Utne did a sabbatical at Stanford in 1976. After that, the School of Medicine recruited him to become part of the faculty starting in 1988. Although it was a long, hard move -- especially for his four sons ages 9 to 20 at the time -- he said it was the right time to go. "It was a hard decision, but with the social climate it was time to leave," John Brock-Utne said.

Brock-Utne had been a professor at a medical school for black South Africans during a time when apartheid was strictly enforced. While there, Steven Biko -- the noted anti-apartheid activist whose death was inspiration for Peter Gabriel's song "Biko" -- was one of his students.

"It was a difficult move," said Arne Brock-Utne who was 18 at the time. "Some people here had strong feelings about apartheid -- that made it hard." After arriving in California, he attended St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., where he majored in a field far removed from anesthesia -- political science. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," he said.

It wasn't until after graduating and working as an anesthesiology technician at Stanford that he decided to attend medical school. He went to the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee where he initially considered a career in family medicine or pediatrics. He ended up having a change of heart, however. "I found the physiology and pharmacology of anesthesia to be interesting," Arne Brock-Utne said, explaining his decision.

John Brock-Utne said he talked with Arne about choosing a specialty but tried not to bias his decision. "I think he made up his own mind," his dad said. "It was amazing to me."

John Brock-Utne said he enjoys his job and probably brought that sense of enjoyment home with him, perhaps influencing his son's decision. "Every patient is different, every day is different. I like that very much," he said. "I come home tired but satisfied."

Both of the Brock-Utnes say they like the pace and pressure of anesthesia. "You have to make decisions very quickly," John Brock-Utne said. His son agreed, adding "You have to be kind of compulsive about it if you're going to prevent problems."

The complexity of anesthesia is part of what drove Arne Brock-Utne to choose that specialty. "I like something with more acute care, more exciting," he said. "You also have a lot of control over the patients in the operating room."

The good weather, his family and a wife-to-be waiting in California brought Arne Brock-Utne to Stanford Hospital for his residency. "It was terrific when he came back," his dad said.

Now, although they rarely work on the same patient, Arne does have occasion to introduce his patients to his dad. "It's great when I say ‘that's my old man' and you can see the surprise on the patient's face," he said.

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