Dr. Bruce M. Achauer, director of the UC Irvine Medical Center's Regional Burn Center for 22 years and an internationally recognized expert on reconstructive surgery, has died of an unidentified bacterial infection.
Achauer would have turned 60 on Monday. "It was very unexpected and shocking for all of us," said Victoria VanderKam, the Orange burn center's program director and nurse manager who had worked with him for more than 20 years. "Bruce was an extraordinary person. We are shocked, stunned and devastated."
Dr. Marianne Cinat, the center's co-director since 1998, said, "People here are very saddened. It's a huge loss."
Achauer -- whose patients included David Rothenberg, a 6-year-old who was set afire by his father in a Buena Park motel room in 1983, and Cheryl Bess, a teenage girl who had been assaulted and burned with acid in 1984 -- died about 11 p.m. Monday in a San Antonio hospital after falling ill over the weekend.
Achauer was there to attend the annual conference of the National American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
"He was here on Wednesday, he did surgery and we all saw him," VanderKam said. "On Thursday he flies out, and on Tuesday morning we hear that he's dead. There's a lot of emotion here, a lot of grief and a lot of tears."
During his 35-year career, Achauer conducted major medical research projects, wrote more than 150 scientific articles and four books, taught at several universities, treated both famous and indigent patients and became one of the world's preeminent plastic surgeons.
He recently completed a two-year term as president of the American Board of Plastic Surgery, the field's governing body, and had published a five-volume textbook, considered, VanderKam said, "the comprehensive bible of plastic surgery" in America.
"He had a passion for burn care," she said. "He was involved in developing and refining new types of treatment."
A graduate of Stanford University and Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, Achauer -- who chose his career at age 13 after working in his father's pharmacy -- interned at San Francisco General Hospital beginning in 1967.
While there, he observed plastic surgeons reconstructing disfigured patients and decided that that's what he wanted to specialize in.
"Plastic surgery is precise and creative, and the reconstructive cases are all unique and difficult," he said. "Each presents a new challenge, [and] I'm also able to develop a long-term relationship with my patients."
In recent years, said Beverly Brenda, administrator of his private practice in Orange, those patients included many victims of life-threatening disfigurements -- often in foreign countries -- whose services were funded by the elective "aesthetic" surgeries he performed for pay.
Achauer is survived by his wife, Tamara, and two grown daughters, Allison and Hilary.
Funeral services will be private.
Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.