A Tribute to Leonard Walts, MD

Picture of Leonard Walts, MD

A Tribute to Leonard Walts, MD (January 1929 - January 2024)

By Lisa Lewis and Jane Moon, MD

Leonard Walts, MD, who passed away in January 2024, is remembered not just for his tremendous contributions to the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology & Perioperative Medicine (DAPM) and the field of anesthesiology, but also for his warmth, integrity, and kindness. Many current and former department members have shared their memories of Dr. Walts and his professional legacy.

When he joined UCLA’s Division of Anesthesiology in 1962, Dr. Walts was one of just five anesthesiologists on staff. (At the time, the group was still housed within the Department of Surgery, where it remained until it became an independent department in 1971.) During his nearly four-decade career at UCLA, Dr. Walts was known for his compassion and his quiet leadership. 

As Barbara Van de Wiele, MD, Vice Chair for Faculty Affairs, and Michael Sopher, MD, Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, wrote in a recent announcement sent to all UCLA anesthesiology faculty, “Dr. Walts was an inspired educator, mentor, and role model for academic physicians.”  

It was a role that brought him tremendous satisfaction, said his wife, Ann Walts, MD, a pathologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I hope everyone knows how much Leonard enjoyed working in and contributing to the department at UCLA for so many years.”

Many of Dr. Walts’ former colleagues recalled how he’d shaped their careers and praised his role as a mentor.

Robert Kaufman, MD, Retired Professor of Anesthesiology and Vice Chair, recalled that during his residency, Dr. Walts shared an article with him about a woman who had remained awake and aware during anesthesia. “It was quite disturbing,” Dr. Kaufman recalled. After reading the article, Dr. Kaufman vowed to minimize the chance of this occurring in his patients and incorporated this focus into his work. He also made sure to emphasize the issue when teaching residents, who often “had a lack of understanding of this issue and tended to certain clinical choices that could precipitate this complication.”

Dr. Walts was the only faculty member to raise the issue with him, Dr. Kaufman said, and it had a profound effect on his practice and teaching.

“He was always in teaching mode, but you didn't realize it was teaching mode,” said Marie Kuffner, MD, Retired Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology. “He was always just kind and thoughtful, and he had a quiet competence about him,” said Dr. Kuffner, who worked closely with him for almost two decades, primarily in the urology suite. 

Harvey Rosenbaum, MD, Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, first met Dr. Walts in July 1981 when he was beginning his residency. “While I did well with book-learning and technical skills, I struggled to develop as a clinician,” Dr. Rosenbaum said. Although some members of the faculty expressed disappointment with his lack of progress, Dr. Walts was a constant source of encouragement, Dr. Rosenbaum recalled. In fact, Dr. Walts was one of two physicians who recruited him to UCLA as an Assistant Professor in 1984.

Thomas Grove, MD, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology, similarly remembers Dr. Walts as a mentor. 

He guided me into two activities that became central to my academic career," Dr. Grove said. As a junior faculty member, Dr. Grove worked under Dr. Walts’ guidance to review and present interesting cases at the department’s weekly clinical case conferences. Dr. Walts had started this conference early in his career, and the review process he established subsequently became the basis of the department’s quality assurance (QA) program. 

“With his guidance, I became the QA committee chair and was involved in such activities in the department and in the hospital for many years,” Dr. Grove said. “He also introduced me to faculty scheduling, leading directly to my becoming Clinical Coordinator, the role I filled for the rest of my career.” 

Dr. Grove also recalled Dr. Walts’ willingness to share opportunities with others. When he was asked to contribute a chapter about anesthesia complications for a book on the complications of urological surgery, Dr. Walts instead passed the opportunity on to Dr. Grove, even though it was one of his areas of expertise. “He knew that it would help further my career, so he gave it to me to do,” Dr. Grove said. 

Fortunately for Denham Ward, MD, PhD, former DAPM resident and faculty member who later became Chair of Anesthesiology at the University of Rochester, Dr. Walts also had a sense of humor. Dr. Ward shared an anecdote from his residency: “Len had a habit of pushing a resident's drugs for you, which for some reason annoyed me,” Dr. Ward said. “One morning, I filled the succinylcholine syringe with saline and kept the real sux syringe to myself, so when he pushed the sux, he was surprised that the patient did not fasciculate. Then I pulled out the real syringe and gave it myself! Luckily for my career, Len saw the humor in the swap.”

Dr. Walts’ research and publication history was extensive. This included his role as the departmental expert and nationally recognized authority on neuromuscular blockade. “Upon his retirement, I looked nationally for a teacher-clinician-researcher to assume the role that Len had established at UCLA,” said C. Philip Larson, MD, Retired Professor of Clinical Anesthesiology and former Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesiology. “Unfortunately, neither I nor my faculty colleagues were able to identify anyone who could come close to filling his shoes.” In the end, it took several different faculty members to be able to take on the various functions Dr. Walts had previously handled. 

Dr. Walts was also the first anesthesiologist at UCLA to use a laryngeal mask airway (LMA), Dr. Rosenbaum recalled, describing it as a “revolutionary airway device.” Dr. Walts taught others how to use the LMA while providing anesthesia for patients in the cystoscopy suites next to the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) at the Center for Health Sciences building, the original location of the UCLA Medical Center.

Despite his extensive contributions to the field, Dr. Walts “never bragged of his accomplishments,” said Dr. Kuffner. “He did every single day the same way: with simplicity, perfection, and integrity.”

Many of Dr. Walts’ colleagues remembered his thoughtfulness, as well as the example he set for others.

At one point, he needed to have a bone cyst in his arm surgically treated. The bone to fill the cyst was being harvested from his hip. “He apparently did not like the idea of general anesthesia,” said Dr. Kaufman, who ended up administering both a spinal anesthetic and a brachial plexus block. Everything went well, Dr. Kaufman said, and Dr. Walts gave him a small leather-bound electronic repair gift in appreciation. “I still have the kit 45 years later, and every time I see it, I think of Len.”

Dr. Rosenbaum recalled one evening in 1984 when a deranged motorist ran over several dozen pedestrians on the sidewalk of Westwood Boulevard. “I was the on-call attending at UCLA that night,” he said. “We had no formal back-up call system. I called Leonard, who without hesitation came in to help." 

It was also during the 1980s when the department had one of its first pregnant residents. When her pregnancy was brought up during a staff meeting, Dr. Walts' first concern was how to adjust her schedule and help minimize her stress, Dr. Kuffner recalled. His response was emblematic of his support for the individual needs of residents and faculty members, Dr. Kuffner said, which "helped mold and shape the culture in the department."

Even after he retired, Dr. Walts continued to be a presence and an example for others.

For many years, he continued to attend Anesthesiology Grand Rounds at 7 a.m. every Wednesday. “I was inspired to follow his example and continued to attend Grand Rounds regularly after my own retirement, until COVID-19 disrupted things,” said Dr. Grove. Dr Walts also audited undergraduate classes at UCLA through the Senior Scholars program. “When I retired, he convinced me to do so as well,” Dr. Grove added.

The department continues to commemorate his professional contributions with a yearly award, in his name, given at the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine Scientific Evening to recognize the best presentation of the event. The award is “proof of the depth of his legacy,” Drs. Van de Wiele and Sopher noted in their announcement.

“He was a humanist (altruist, advocate) as evidenced by his approach to patient care, relationships with colleagues, and generous and compassionate support of junior faculty and trainees,” they wrote.

“Dr. Walts served as a role model for many of us, not only as an educator, clinician, innovator, and researcher,” Dr. Rosenbaum added. “He was a model of integrity, generous, and genuinely concerned with the welfare and future of the department’s faculty, residency and research programs.”

As Dr. Kuffner summed up, “He was loved.”