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Friday, January 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Gene' Strandness, 73, innovative surgeon

Seattle Times staff reporter

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About four decades ago, Dr. Donald Eugene "Gene" Strandness Jr., then a young surgical resident at the Veterans Administration Hospital, began working on a noninvasive technique for diagnosing obstructions of veins and arteries.

At that time, his ideas flew in the face of accepted practices, and many of the established surgeons were openly skeptical.

But Dr. Strandness, even then singularly dedicated to patient care, never gave up. Over the decades, he refined his vision, eventually developing, with another physician, a method of using high-frequency ultrasound to look at tissues and blood.

Today, his techniques are widely used, and Dr. Strandness is internationally acknowledged, colleagues say, as "the father of noninvasive vascular diagnosis."

Dr. Strandness, 73, died Monday (Jan. 7) at his Bellevue home of pulmonary failure. He had reached the pinnacle in his chosen profession through a combination of dogged determination, concern for patients, honesty and stubbornness, a quality extolled by Dr. Strandness himself in a 1989 address to the Society for Vascular Surgery.

Dr. Strandness, who had just been elected president of the group, related his Norwegian Lutheran upbringing in North Dakota, where "the rules of God and the fallibility of man" were continually impressed upon him.

Through events in his life, he told the group, "I have come to the conclusion that success occurs because of a combination of family-taught values and ideals, stubbornness, a modest intellect and an ability to work hard when others are playing."

Stubbornness "is a laudable trait," he told his colleagues. "One must in this business stubbornly assume that one's goals are real, attainable and worthy of the effort. This is very important because there will be many times when others will share neither your enthusiasm nor your goals, nor your belief in the value of your work."

Friends and family members said Dr. Strandness not only believed in his own goals but helped others attain theirs.

"He saved my life when I was in nursing school, when I was freaked out about everything I had to learn," said Chris Martin, a niece. "He was wonderful; he was so patient; he laughed with me. He helped walk me through whatever I had to do. He was my cheerleader."

Dr. Strandness' wife, Edith "Edie" Strandness, said her husband was always a caring, loving man — not only toward his family but toward his patients. He gave them his home phone number and found "little things to learn" from each of them.

One of his daughters, Jill Exner of Snoqualmie, said her father believed everyone should be treated with respect. "You do your best but you treat people well along the way. And you be thankful — he exuded being thankful for what you have."

Another daughter, Tracy Stierle of Manchester, Kitsap County, said her father had "this amazing outlook from life — he gleaned something from every situation he was in."

Even as a child, she felt great pride in her father, she said. "He was so honest and forthright; he had such integrity. The thing he taught me and all of us is: You stand up for what's right. You stick to your guns. ... His intentions were to keep things honest and straight, and to make sure the little people didn't get lost along the way."

Dr. Strandness was born on Sept. 22, 1928, in a dirt-poor family in Bowman, N.D. He moved to Olympia with his family when he was 10 and graduated from Olympia High School in 1946. His parents sacrificed and scrimped to send him to school, Exner said.

He graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine in 1954, joined the faculty in 1962 and became professor of surgery in 1970. He served as head of the Division of Vascular Surgery until July 1995.

Over the decades, he trained and inspired many students. "Of all the people who influenced my life, Gene Strandness is Number 1," said Dr. Robert Zwolak, an academic vascular surgeon at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.

"He was incredibly smart and insightful, strongly opinionated but never arrogant. He believed that everyday people could and should make major contributions to life and society."

Dr. Strandness' other survivors include his daughter Sandra Strandness of Bellevue; son, Erik Strandness of Spokane; sister, Audrey Martin of Tacoma; nine grandchildren; and two nieces and a nephew.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. today at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, 3030 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue, with a reception to follow. Remembrances may be made to the church or a charity of choice. Family members and friends are invited to share memories and sign the family's online guest book at www.flintofts.com.

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