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The Body Builder : For 25 Years, Dr. Stanley Biber--America's Dean of Sex-Change Operations--Has Been Correcting Nature's Miscues

January 23, 1995|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TRINIDAD, Colo. — He arrives for work at 7:15 on a cold, gloomy Thursday morning, wearing a brown Stetson, a down jacket, jeans and black boots.

He'd more easily be taken for a rancher than America's dean of sex-change surgeons.

But pulling on operating room scrubs, Dr. Stanley Biber is in his element. He's utterly relaxed about this morning's surgery, a delicate affair that will take three hours to complete.

"We worry more about what's going to happen to the Broncos," says Biber, who does two or three sex-change operations a week. He's completed more than 3,000 male-to-female procedures in the last 25 years and figures he still performs about half the operations in the world.

"I'm getting to be the old man in the field," says Biber, who admits to being about 70. But he shows few signs of slowing down.

The doctor spends several mornings a week in the lone operating room at Trinidad's 70-bed Mt. San Rafael Hospital, working with a small, close-knit team of surgical technicians and nurses.

Later, he sees patients at his office in an old stone bank building downtown, and some afternoons he heads to the courthouse to fulfill his duties as a Las Animas County commissioner. Weekends are spent working on his farm or on one of his cattle ranches.

Trinidad's most famous resident has no plans to retire.

"As long as my hand's steady and my mind's clear, I'm going to continue to do transsexuals," he says.

*

Biber built his practice in this coal-mining town nestled in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains where the Purgatoire River reaches the Great Plains. As the mines have shut one by one, the population of Trinidad--193 miles south of Denver--has fallen to about 8,400.

Some places might resent being known as the "Sex-Change Capital of the World," but Trinidad's residents are used to it.

Down at the Dairy Queen, Delfina Vialpando takes a break to ponder Biber's legacy to the community.

"When I broke my arm a long time ago, he's the one who fixed it," she says. "It's a normal thing now. Everybody's OK with it, I think."

In a nearby booth, Louis Volturo extends his right index finger, severed two years ago in a butcher-shop accident.

"He put my finger back on," Volturo says, his wife Sheila nodding agreement. "I owe him my life, I guess."

Although they once had reservations about Biber's sex-change practice, the Volturos say they're used to the idea. "If it helps people, more power to them," Louis Volturo says. "They're lucky if they have somebody to help them."

*

Biber's latest patient is Henryetta (formerly Henry, "call me Etta"), a 22-year Army veteran who retired with the rank of sergeant first-class. At 43, she is slight, with permed, red-highlighted hair and blue eyes behind large-framed glasses. Growing up, "No one ever came up to me and called me a sissy," she says. "I was never that kind of a person."

But she always felt feminine on the inside. Ten years ago, while stationed in Germany and living in an off-base apartment, she started cross-dressing after hours.

Until recently, Henryetta says, she'd never been romantically involved with anyone.

"I did not go out on dates. I've never been married. I just didn't participate," she says. "I lived in my own world. . . . There are a lot of things I missed."

She moved to Oklahoma City after her discharge in August, 1993, and began hormone treatments to prepare for sex-change surgery. She also adopted a new name and gender identity.

As the hormones lightened her beard, raised her voice and caused breasts to develop, Henryetta delighted in her new self.

"There are still little euphoric highs," she says. "Like when you're in the store shopping and someone comes up and says, 'May I help you, ma'am?' "

Biber requires that his patients follow standard guidelines for sex-change surgery. Henryetta, for example, lived full-time as a woman, began attending group therapy and underwent a second psychological evaluation. (Therapy is required to ensure that people are really ready to take the big step.)

Meanwhile, she made arrangements with Biber, who had operated on several of her friends with good results.

Insurance doesn't cover the surgery, so surgeon's fees, hospital charges, counseling and hormone therapy are all paid for out of pocket--about $30,000, Henryetta says. About $11,000 of that goes to Biber and the hospital.

On the eve of the surgery, Henryetta insists that she is comfortable with her decision.

During the procedure, the surgeon will remove the penile tissue and testes and use the excess skin to fashion a vagina, virtually indistinguishable from that of a biological woman. Patients can have sex and even reach orgasm because the nerve connections remain intact.

"I don't consider this a mutilation," Henryetta says. "This is more like a hysterectomy to me. It's an operation that's necessary and required."

But it was tough when Henryetta, an only child, told her parents of her decision. Her mother took it hard.

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