Barbara Wildhaber, the Swiss Surgeon Saving the Tiniest of Lives
"Sometimes, when I'm operating, I say to myself, 'but why do I do this?'", Barbara Wildhaber laughs, as she often does during our meeting. The truth is that the paediatric surgeon doesn't regret her choice. Each operation she carries out is highly pressurised, but there are benefits. "As soon as I've finished an operation, I know that it's what I want to be doing. The combination of technique, the meticulous nature of operations—where everything is on a bonsaï scale—and then the relationships with parents and the children… It fascinates me."
Barbara Wildhaber greets us at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) in Switzerland, in an extremely well-ordered office: "it helps keep my thoughts clear", she says. Co-director of the Swiss Center for Liver Diseases in Children located within Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), director of the Romand University Center for Paediatric Surgery, member of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and member of the board tasked with deciding on the distribution of highly specialised medicine between Swiss hospitals… Dr. Wildhaber, who has adopted Geneva as her home, has recently added a chair at the Assembly of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to her extensive list of posts. This 48-year-old woman from the Aargau canton of Switzerland. She is the only specialist in the country who performs transplants on the youngest babies, which means she can't leave Switzerland for very long. She has a profound passion for the liver, listing its functions, its capacity to regenerate itself, even if half of it is removed… "Within our bodies, everything revolves around the liver." Not to mention that it's also "sensual, beautiful and pleasing to the touch", and that of all transplants, those of the liver offer the best long-term survival rate.
Dr. Wildhaber rose to prominence in 2015 after directing an operation to separate conjoined twins whose livers were fused. This world-first was carried out at the Inselspital in Bern, on prematurely born twin sisters, who weighed just 1.2 kg each. "We worked as a team of several surgeons. In such an operation, the surgeons are only one element, an important element, but there are others that are also important. And we support each other, because often our doubts start to creep in at different stages." For Dr. Wildhaber, the technical feat wasn't the most significant. "It was a very emotional experience. We're not used to seeing two hearts beat within the same chest. It was beautiful." It's a moment marked in her memory, where the best recollections are mixed in with the worst. Sadly, one of the twins died of heart failure aged just a few months. She hasn't forgotten a single one of the deaths. How does she manage the stress? "By sharing!" A reminder of the importance of the team, once again. "We can't achieve much alone, and this is particularly true in specialised medicine", she says, before going on to mention Valérie McLin, with whom she co-directs the Swiss Center for Liver Diseases in Children. "She takes care of the medical follow-up. She's my brain."
Tiredness, strong emotions: the aftermath of an operation can be overwhelming. At times Dr. Wildhaber has cried with exhaustion the day after performing a transplant. Her formula for keeping up her energy levels being in nature and practising sport. As a teenager, she competed in sprinting events at national level. Since then, she's set out on her path of professional advancement with a stopwatch in hand.
Dr. Wildhaber maintains that she never had a pre-determined career plan. Opportunities played a key role. "For a long time I was lucky in the sense that I didn't have to fight to get where I was." Things became more complicated as she climbed higher up the hierarchy. "When you reach a certain position, you become the subject of attacks." Does being a woman complicate the situation? "Five years ago, I would have said no. Since then I've realised that, instead of countering a woman by putting forward arguments, certain men start to act macho. If a man is insistent, it is said that he has character. If a woman behaves the same way, she's considered bad-tempered." Barbara Wildhaber, for her part, is described as pleasant and approachable. In her department, the atmosphere is good-natured and friendly. But it didn't get to be that way by chance. She also has an "iron hand in a velvet glove", according to Dominique Belli, Head of the Pediatrics Department. "I'm very willing to listen and I take note of the opinion of my team before making a decision", she explained. "But once a decision has been taken, we have to go ahead with it. It's the pragmatic; maybe even a bit surgical, side to me."
The surgeon has learned patience. It's essential to take time with patients. Even if it's only taking a moment to undo the poppers of an item of clothing for them. These children are a "driving force" for her. At times funny, sad, aggressive… "Their emotions are pure. It's thanks to them that I keep my feet on the ground. And their vulnerability softens me."
Barbara Wildhaber is excited about joining the Assembly of the ICRC. Humanitarian paediatric surgery constitutes another one of her multiple lives. Like many doctors, she has carried out missions abroad. She would now like to set up permanent surgery services in developing countries, by training and monitoring people in the field.
Such networks have already been partially put in place in Kenya and Cameroon. "In Switzerland, we have quality surgery and it's a great luxury. I would like to give access to the most basic operations to others. I couldn't live without this counterweight." Nor without the children. "Six weeks ago, we performed a transplant on a baby who weighed five kilos", she recalls, hovering on the doorstep on her way out. "I saw her again yesterday, she's now six months old and she smiled at me with her puffy cheeks. All the rest pales in comparison."