Medical promise, family shattered

Crash: Hopkins colleagues mourn a physician couple, worry for their children.

January 21, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt, Jeff Barker and Andrew A. Green | Laura Barnhardt, Jeff Barker and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The forty-something doctors in the Orthopaedic Surgery Department at Johns Hopkins Bayview campus were talented enough to dream of professional breakthroughs and young enough to enjoy watching their kids grow up.

James Wenz was doing groundbreaking work in hip-replacement surgery. And when he and his wife, Lidia, a child psychiatrist and part-time professor at Hopkins, held a party at Christmas for their doctor friends, of course the kids were invited to come along and play a little air hockey.

"Time is so precious that to go off and be among the adults was to take away from family time," said Stephen Belkoff, an associate professor in Wenz's department.

Belkoff and others in the Hopkins medical community mourned the deaths yesterday of James and Lidia Wenz, killed in a crash on Interstate 83 in Baltimore County. And they worried for the future of the couple's two children, who survived the wreck.

"So you've got a guy who in many ways was larger than life. And then you've got five or six families of relatively the same age, and the kids are relatively the same age," said Belkoff, a 41-year-old father of two elementary school-age children.

"And for a brief second you think of both parents being wiped out and leaving the kids behind, and it's just devastating.

"You can imagine the personal impact this has on all these relatively young families."

Early yesterday, Dr. Lidia Z. Wenz, 44, was behind the wheel of the couple's 2000 Hummer headed south on I-83 toward their home in the Millersville area of Anne Arundel County.

Her husband was beside her. Their daughter, Adrianna, 8, and son, James F. Wenz Jr., 7, were in the back, strapped in their booster seats, after a long holiday weekend apparently spent visiting their grandfather in Upstate New York.

They passed Padonia Road about 1:15 a.m., the Maryland State Fairgrounds to their left. But before they got to the Timonium Road exit, the sport utility vehicle swerved across the highway, first into the side of a tractor-trailer truck and then into the path of another tractor-trailer before overturning, killing the doctors, police said.

Lidia Wenz was not wearing a seat belt, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman. James Wenz was wearing his. Both were thrown from the Hummer and were pronounced dead at the scene, Rouse said.

The children climbed from the wreckage - Adrianna with a fractured wrist and James with a punctured lung - in a testament to the value of child safety seats if there ever was one, Hopkins friends said. The children were listed in good condition at Sinai Hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said.

It was unclear what caused the accident, said police, who were investigating. Road conditions do not appear to have played a role in the crash, according to police. The Hummer and trucks will be inspected for mechanical problems.

The driver of the first truck, John T. Flanagan, 53, of Shushan, N.Y., was not injured, Rouse said. The driver of the second truck, Jim S. Brown, 31, of the 1900 block of Hollins St. in Baltimore, was released from Sinai yesterday afternoon, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The southbound lanes of the highway were closed for about eight hours after the crash.

James F. Wenz, 40, was chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and an attending surgeon at both Bayview and Johns Hopkins hospitals.

He frequently worked seven days a week, but his children were always in his thoughts, said Reuven Pasternak, vice dean of the Bayview campus.

"James talked about them in the operating room," Pasternak said. "He was always keeping track of his children."

As a surgeon, James Wenz was perhaps best known for performing hip-replacement operations through a 4-inch incision - about a third the size of the incision traditionally used by orthopedists. By cutting through less tissue, especially muscle, he spared his patients considerable pain and speeded their recovery.

Though the 1991 Hopkins medical school graduate was not the only surgeon performing such "minimally invasive" hip operations, colleagues said he refined the method and worked on the development of artificial hip joints geared toward this type of operation.

"He developed it to a place where he had an international clientele and had physicians from around the country and overseas who came to watch him operate," Pasternak said.

After coming to Bayview in 1997, Wenz greatly expanded Bayview's orthopedics department by recruiting specialists in spine, hand and foot surgery, sports orthopedics and other types of joint replacement. The center also became a training ground for medical students, residents and physicians wishing to expand their knowledge.

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