Dr. James Barbabella is a retired physician who spent 28 years as an internist at Sansum Clinic. He and his wife, Maggie, were married in 1970 in Salem, Virginia. “I married up,” Dr. Barbabella said cheerfully. The couple came to Santa Barbara in 1972. “I always told her how smart she was, even though she married me!”
Jim grew up in Florida and although she was born in Santa Barbara, Maggie’s family moved away when she was nine years old. “I think she always wanted to return here,” Jim said. When they met, Jim was in medical school and Maggie was working as a flight attendant for Pan American Airways in Florida. The two of them shared many things, with both having rollicking senses of humor.
“I finished medical school at the University of Miami and a year of internship at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, plus a year of residency at the VA Hospital in Salem/Roanoke, Virginia. I also went into private practice there for two years. I then came to Santa Barbara and worked at St. Francis Hospital in the emergency room. We rented a little place down by the beach, so Maggie was stuck in the fog all day, while I was at the hospital on the hillside where there was lots of sunshine. I wanted to buy a place where Maggie could also be in the sun. I found the perfect house in Montecito. It turned out to be across the street from Dr. Ed McGinn, who was a rheumatologist at Sansum Clinic. I was working very long and unpredictable hours, and when Ed suggested I come over to Sansum Clinic, I was excited because it was (and is) the Mayo Clinic of the West.”
To join Sansum, Jim needed to be board certified in Internal Medicine. He and Maggie decided to move east to complete his residency at the University of Virginia-affiliated VA Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. While they were in Virginia, Dr. McGinn called to say that Cottage Hospital had started a new training program that would allow Jim to return to Santa Barbara. Jim applied and was approved for a third year of residency at Cottage Hospital. “In order to set up the new teaching program, I became the chief resident, which was funny, because I was their only resident at the time! It was my job to ask my former colleagues to be attending physicians for the program. So, I set it up and it was a big success,” he said. “And that was the beginning of the teaching program at Cottage Hospital.”
By the time Jim completed his residency at Cottage, there were no openings at Sansum Clinic. With a loan from the bank, he set up shop and was in business! With his practice in Santa Barbara, Jim found himself treating a lot of out-of-towners. About 60% of his patients came from the Central Valley. It was the 1970s and six months after opening his office, the gas crisis hit, which greatly reduced people’s ability to travel to Santa Barbara. Fortunately, there was an opening at Sansum Clinic at the time so Jim moved his practice to the Pueblo office. Later on, he opened Sansum’s first clinic in Carpinteria.
“I loved working with my patients,” said Jim. “To connect with them, I often used humor to help them relate to me and relax. People came to Sansum from all over the country. All of my patients were special. I had the pleasure of providing medical care to some well-known celebrities. We treated everyone the same and whether or not they were celebrities had no bearing on their medical care.”
One of Jim’s patients worked in Las Vegas. He invited him for an all-expense-paid visit, which Jim declined. The invitation included tickets for a Lynda Carter concert. Lynda played Wonder Woman on TV. One day a package arrived at his office with a signed photo of Wonder Woman that read ‘To Dr. Barbabella with All My Love, Lynda.’ He jokingly told everyone they used to date, which they never did. He has that photo in his den to this day.
“The love of my life was my dear wife, Maggie. Sadly, she died 10 years ago,” Jim said. “It was devastating to lose her.” However, since then, he’s found love again with Fran, who’d been Maggie’s best friend and had lost her husband the year before Maggie died. A year after Maggie passed away, Jim decided to retire. “It was the right time for me to ‘hang up my stethoscope,’” he said. “However, I miss my colleagues, the wonderful work we did at the Clinic and my many patients who gave my life purpose for so many years. I’ve included Sansum Clinic in my estate plan, because Sansum was very good to me and I’m grateful for that. It may sound trite, by remembering Sansum, I’m ‘giving back’ and that’s important to me.”