Vail surgeon was devoted to patients |

Vail surgeon was devoted to patients

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL ” Robert Gerner was Vail’s first surgeon and probably the only one to own a rock and candy store.

Gerner died Friday in a Denver hospital. He had been on life support and had undergone surgery for a chronic lung disease, which eventually killed him, said Dr. Kent Petrie.

“We are sad to see him leave this world,” said Petrie, who interviewed Gerner for the job at Vail Valley Medical Center.

Gerner began working in Vail in January 1980 when the hospital expanded to include an operating room. At first, Gerner lived in Evergreen and worked at the University of Colorado at Denver as an oncologist.

Gerner came to Vail when he was needed, staying in a rented apartment in West Vail, friends said. He later moved to Intermountain in West Vail.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

In the early 1980s, the demand for surgery was low, Petrie said. So Gerner, an avid collector of rocks, opened a store in Lionshead where he sold candy and rocks.

“It’s probably the only candy store ever that said, ‘Gone to surgery, be back in an hour,'” Petrie said.

Gerner performed appendectomies, cesarean sections, cancer and ski accident trauma surgeries and “whatever a general surgeon could do that a patient would show up with,” said Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first doctor who’s been retired for 17 years.

“He knew what he was doing,” Steinberg said. “He was good and fast, but not too fast.”

Gerner even delivered Petrie’s son on July 16, 1981. Petrie was glad the skilled Gerner did the emergency cesarean section when complications occurred.

“It was one of the more serious deliveries we had,” Petrie said.

Gerner was a quiet man who devoted his time mostly to his patients, friends said.

“His practice was very much his social life and he always spent a lot of time with patients, kind of caught up on their lives and their families,” Petrie said.

Medical colleagues praised Gerner for his professionalism and extraordinary bedside manner.

At the hospital, Gerner would pull up a chair and spend time with his patients while other doctors would drop by and simply ask their patients how they were doing, said Charmayne Bernhardt, director of marketing for Colorado Mountain Medical.

Once, “He sat there for hours and held the patient’s hand and listened and listened and listened,” Bernhardt said. “His patients really were his life.”

Bernhardt was also Gerner’s neighbor and they often talked about gardening.

“He was one of those gentle souls ” he was terrific,” she said.

Gerner never operated on a patient who did not need surgery, Steinberg said.

“His decision was not as a financial benefit to himself,” he said. “It was for the benefit of the patient. That’s not always true.”

His private life was a mystery, friends said.

Steinberg tried for years to find out Gerner’s age, but Gerner never told him.

Gerner told Steinberg that he was one of nine children from a poor family in Texas ” he never said where ” and he was the only surviving member, Steinberg said.

“That was all private and never discussed,” he said.

Gerner never went out to dinner, never visited colleagues’ homes and never skied, he said.

“Work was his life,” Steinberg said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or

Support Local Journalism