Lifesaver, physician, friend remembered

The recent death of Dr. Joseph Rojas made 58-year-old Gaylem Ausem remember the time she was terrified that something was eating away at her insides, and how he was able to calm her fears.

"I was just 24, and he had found my cervical cancer," she recalled Tuesday. "He took the time in his office to explain everything to me, let me know that if I got pregnant the way my hormones acted might cause the cancer to spread. He knew I was teetering on the decision whether to have the surgery until after I had a baby, but he didn't want me to die."

She decided to have the surgery, which included Rojas removing her cervix and womb, a procedure that made it impossible for her to have more children. She never regretted it.

"I got to live, and my daughter had a mother, and the cancer never came back there," she said. "He was the kind of doctor that you could trust. I remember when my mother died, I made an appointment just to talk to him because of the stress. We talked for quite a while.

"How many doctors are there that you would do that with?"

Rojas, the father of six, died Sunday at his home of apparent heart problems. He was 75.

A specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, Rojas established a residency program affiliated with University Medical Center that trained many of the doctors who deliver babies in Las Vegas.

"Probably half the OB-GYNS in town were trained by him in that program," said Dr. Don Roberts. Roberts said he was fortunate enough to be "first his student, then his partner and then with him at the University of Nevada School of Medicine."

"Professionalism was No. 1 with him," Roberts said. "We had to know our patients. We had to really know what was going on with them before we treated them. And he made sure that we treated them with respect, starting with a tie, white shirt and a clean white coat."

Rojas was a practicing physician until 1997 and chairman of the Nevada school of medicine OB-GYN department until he retired two years ago. In 2001, the Clark County Medical Society recognized his contributions to the community by honoring him as Physician of the Year.

He earned his medical degree from Louisiana State University in 1957 and completed his obstetrics and gynecology residency at Tulane University before joining the Air Force.

Patient Andrea Takas, 59, broke into tears as she remembered how Rojas saved her life.

"Another doctor botched a surgery on me big time, and I was really bleeding and he did a procedure to stop it," she said. "He was so conscientious. I'll never forget him."

Often, she said, Rojas would ask during her appointments if it was OK if he showed some of his medical students how he was handling her treatment. "I'd say 'sure' but then kidded with him that I expected to get the visit for free. That was the kind of doctor he was. You could kid with him."

In the early 1960s, Rojas, then a captain in the Air Force, served as deputy commander of the Nellis Air Force Base hospital. He opened his first office on East Sahara Avenue in 1963.

"I'll never forget how excited we were when his first patient came in," said Mona Marie Rojas, who was married for 51 years to the man she first met when he was an intern and she was a graduate nurse in New Orleans. "I worked for him for a very short time because I kept having babies."

The Rojases had four sons and two daughters. Takas remembers that when Rojas retired, she made an appointment with his son, Dr. Joseph A. Rojas II. "It was like going to Dr. Rojas 35 years ago," she said.

When Rojas' kidneys failed in the late 1990s, all of his children wanted to donate a kidney, his wife said.

"Lisa won out," Mona Rojas said.

That kidney transplant lasted for about eight years, and then Rojas had to go on dialysis.

"The kids all wanted to donate another kidney to him, but he had other medical issues and didn't want to do that to them," Mona Rojas said. "Dialysis was very hard for him."

Mona Rojas said family members knew how much Rojas loved them, but they also understood his commitment to medicine.

"I can't tell you how many birthdays, anniversaries and holidays I've spent in a restaurant by myself after my husband got a medical call," she said. "I got to know waiters by their first names because they spent a lot of time talking to me."

Sixty-year-old Vicki Ham remembers that because of Dr. Rojas, she wasn't frightened during her first pregnancy.

"A woman doesn't know what to expect and he talked things through with you," she said. "After my son was born, he asked about him every time he saw me. It was like my son was a part of him."

Physicians in the community had similar memories.

"He always knew everyone's name, and believe me, that's an art," said Dr. Ivan Goldsmith. "He never had a bad word to say about anyone."

Dr. Joel Lubritz, a former member of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners, was overcome with emotion Tuesday.

"He was a great teacher who wanted to make good physicians," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm having a difficult time talking right now."

Rojas also served as chief of staff at Sunrise Hospital, UMC, Valley Hospital and Summerlin Hospital.

Mona Rojas said her husband died as he undressed at home after an early dinner Sunday at the Cheesecake Factory.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church, 1811 Pueblo Vista Drive. Visitation will be at 3:30 p.m. today at the church.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908.