Andranik Ovassapian, anesthesiologist and expert on 'difficult' airways, 1936-2010

An anesthesiologist who developed some of the tools and techniques used to control breathing during surgery for patients with a "difficult" airway, Andranik (Andy) Ovassapian, professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago, died June 17 following a major stroke at a hospital in Helsinki, Finland, where he was attending the annual meeting of the European Society of Anesthesiology. He was 74.

Ovassapian, of Highland Park, Ill., was a pioneer in the development and teaching of fiber-optic intubation. It is a sophisticated system used to insert a breathing tube into the lungs of a patient when standard ventilation methods such as a facemask or routine tracheal intubation are not adequate.

He developed his interest in management of the difficult airway after witnessing airway-related disasters that resulted in loss of life during his training. In the 1970s, he began using the flexible bronchoscope to facilitate inserting a breathing tube. By 1980, he and his colleagues had developed a program to teach this technique to residents. In 1984, they started the first fiber optic training workshops, and in 1991, he patented the Ovassapian Fiberoptic Airway, a small plastic tool used with a bronchoscope to help insert and position the breathing tube while protecting the tongue and airway.

A persistent advocate for patient safety, Ovassapian helped the American Society of Anesthesiologists develop its guidelines for management of the difficult airway. He also worked with the ASA's task force on preoperative management of patients with obstructive sleep apnea.

"Through his inventions, teaching and advocacy, he has directly or indirectly improved the quality of medical care for millions of patients," said Jeffrey Apfelbaum, professor and chair of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Chicago. "Andy's teaching in difficult-airway management and his popularization of flexible fiber-optic endoscopy have influenced clinical practice around the world."

"He was also a tireless teacher with a long-standing passion for education," Apfelbaum added. "We owe him a debt of gratitude for a magnificent career devoted to helping us take better care of our patients."

"Although he turned 74 in January, he could always be found around the operating rooms," said Allan Klock, professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Chicago, who worked with Ovassapian. "He took the most difficult airway cases, patients with head and neck or lung cancers, for whom placing a breathing tube and managing the airway could be a struggle. Yet he always found time and patience to work with students, sharing the knowledge he had gathered over a lifetime."

"Andy always made way for anyone who sought his help," said colleague Jerome Klafta, professor of anesthesia and critical care. "He graciously helped everyone, from medical students to senior faculty. His presence has benefited all of us here tremendously. He even took frequent calls from colleagues around the world seeking urgent advice about challenging cases, or less urgent advice on technical or cognitive aspects of airway management."

Born Jan. 27, 1936, in Arak, Iran, Ovassapian received his medical degree in 1961 from Pahlavi University (now known as Shiraz University) in Iran. He began his residency in anesthesiology at Namazee Hospital in Shiraz, in 1961, but in 1963, he moved to the United States to complete his residency and a research fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania-considered the top training program at the time. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 18 months before returning to the Pahlavi University medical school in 1968 as an associate professor of anesthesia. He was soon named chairman of the department of anesthesiology and served for six years.

In 1974, he returned to the United States, where the "possibilities for research and the development of new technologies were greater," he said. He joined the faculty at Northwestern University in 1974, became chief of anesthesia service at the Veterans Administration Chicago Healthcare System - Lakeside in 1975 and was promoted to professor at Northwestern University in 1983. In 1998, he moved to the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care at the University of Chicago, where he established the Airway Study and Training Center, an international resource for clinicians and researchers who typically spent a week at the Center learning the fine points of airway management.

A prolific researcher, author and educator, Ovassapian published 44 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, 51 abstracts, 50 book chapters and three books: Fiberoptic Airway Endoscopy in Anesthesia and Critical Care in 1990; Fiberoptic Endoscopy and the Difficult Airway in 1996; and, with Chicago colleague Dennis Coalson, New Developments in Airway Management in 2009. He lectured all over the world, giving more than 350 presentations at medical centers and scientific meetings.

In 1995, to promote the advancement and practice of airway management, he founded the Society for Airway Management, a multidisciplinary, subspecialty organization with 400 members from 34 countries. He served as its first president from 1995-97, as executive director from 1998-2008 and gave the Society's first Ovassapian Lecture in 2000.

Ovassapian received many awards, including the Outstanding New Citizen Award from the Citizenship Council of Metropolitan Chicago; the William O. McQuiston, MD, Award from the Illinois Society of Anesthesiologists; and the first Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Airway Management. He was on the editorial boards for the Journal of Bronchology and the American Journal of Anesthesiology, guest editor of Anesthesia and Analgesia since 2008 and associate editor of the Airway Gazette, the Society for Airway Management newsletter, since 1997. He was also a member of the Faculty of 1000, a group of leading researchers and clinicians who evaluate the most important articles in biology and medicine.

He is survived by his wife, Ashghen, whom he married in 1962; his daughter, Nora (husband Sevan), sons Armen (wife Melina) and Vahe (wife Maryann); and eight grandchildren: Marissa, Michael, Madeline, Jacklyn, Deanna, Rina, Alec and Gregory.

With a heartfelt appreciation for music, Ovassapian played the violin and enjoyed reading, golf, chess and traveling with his wife, children and grandchildren. He relished sharing life experiences with his family. As a passionate contributor, he valued his affiliation with the Armenian community and especially his church in Glenview, Ill. He also collected fine Persian rugs.

The wake will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Monday, June 28 at Donnellan Family Funeral Services, 10045 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. Funeral services will begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 29 at Armenian All Saints Apostolic Church, 1701 N. Greenwood Road in Glenview. The University of Chicago will hold a memorial service at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations should be sent to Armenian All Saints Apostolic Church, the Society for Airway Management, or the Airway Study & Training Centerat the Department of Anesthesia at the University of Chicago Medical Center.