For many people, a trip to the hospital or the doctor’s office awakens anxiety and fear.
Dr. Stephen Bannar had the rare ability to alleviate those feelings by relating to patients on a personal level. While it seemed a unique way to practice medicine, it was more a characteristic at the core of who he was.
“He had the whole package,” said Chris Proctor, administrative director of Barton Health’s Center for Orthopedics & Wellness. “He could sit there with you and relate with you on any level. Then he could walk into the (operating room) and just do amazing surgery.”
Bannar, 55, was found dead Dec. 13 while visiting family back in New Jersey. His death was ruled a suicide, according to the Gloucester County Medical Examiner’s Office.
News of his passing sent grief and disbelief through the South Shore community. Over his more than two decades in Tahoe, Bannar left a mark on countless lives.
“He was a ‘dockstar.’ Not a rockstar, a ‘dockstar,” said Todd Offenbacher, a friend and patient of Bannar.
“It’s just devastating.”
Hundreds took to social media to share their stories about how Bannar helped them — helped them get back on the hill, helped keep the faith during difficult times.
“Dr. Bannar was an integral part of this community. As a doctor, and a community member he was as well regarded as they come. He gave more than 20 years to the people of South Lake Tahoe. He helped people get well and made the community better in the process,” Mayor Brooke Laine said in a statement.
Those who were close with him have no shortage of memorable stories.
There was the time he performed surgery on Proctor’s Jack Russell on Easter Sunday in his kitchen. The dog had cancer and needed to have its leg amputated. Facing a steep medical bill, the Proctors were considering having the dog euthanized.
Bannar recruited the local anesthesiologist and another local surgeon and successfully amputated the leg using his kitchen table as an operating table.
“Frontier medicine. That was him at his best,” Proctor said with a chuckle.
Colleen Preston first started working with Bannar when she was 19. She recalled how at her wedding her father in law was dealing with knee issues. Bannar gave him a shot of a Toradol — a pain killer frequently used by NFL players — so he could dance at the wedding.
“He was an amazing friend and caregiver,” Preston said.
Bannar was quintessentially Tahoe. He attempted to blaze a new fashion trend: lab coat and snow pants.
“We had to change our dress code because of him,” Proctor joked.
Bannar’s legacy — a phrase he likely would have bristled at — extends well beyond South Shore.
In 2010 he made his third volunteer trip overseas to help provide medical care to underdeveloped nations, the Tribune reported. The volunteer work, he said, was an opportunity to be a positive representative for the U.S., while also giving back to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“The United States gets a lot of flack from across the world. This is a great way to be a good ambassador … for others to see that we are not what we are depicted as in the papers.”
“It is very rewarding and in reality, it forces you to be a better doctor — that’s why I do it,” he said. “To see the people so happy that you are there to help. They welcomed us with open arms.”
In the past several years Bannar pioneered Barton Health’s Community Wellness Outings, nature-based experiences for medical patients on National Forest lands. The program was recently selected as a finalist for the 2018 SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow) award for Public Land Management Innovation, the Tribune reported.
“We need to change our mindset from treating disease to promoting wellness,” Bannar, and avid recreation enthusiast, told the Tribune in 2017. “A prescription for nature can enable accessibility for at-risk groups as well as preventive medicine for other members of the community.”
Services for Bannar took place earlier this week.
In his memory, Barbara Bannar, Dr. Bannar’s widow and a longtime LTUSD school board member, has created the Stephen Bannar, MD Memorial Fund c/o Lake Tahoe Unified School District.
The fund was created “in recognition of Dr. Bannar’s care and concern for adolescent mental health,” according to an announcement from the district. Funds will help provide essential mental health services for LTUSD students.
Memorial donations can be made online at http://www.ltedf.org/ or by check made payable to “LTUSD” with “Dr. Bannar Memorial Fund” noted in the memo and delivered to the district office, 1021 Al Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150.
The memorial fund is a fitting way to honor a man who never hesitated to give back.
“I have a hard time coming up with anyone in this community … who gave more of themself to Tahoe,” Offenbacher said.