Jill Waibel, MD’s interest in science was piqued at a young age. Both of her grandfathers were pharmacists, and she regularly entered science and technology fairs as a student. But it was an invitation to be part of one of the 20th century’s biggest healthcare-related news stories that flung her full-force on a path toward medicine. “As a junior in high school, I was elected student body president, and the summer before my senior year I got a call from the superintendent of schools asking me to come into his office,” says Dr. Waibel.
A new student was coming to the district—a 15-year-old named Ryan White. As she knew from news reports, White—a hemophiliac—had contracted HIV from a blood infusion. He had been kicked out of his previous school due to fears of contagion among students and parents, and his family had faced threats from their local community.
Musician Elton John purchased White and his family a new home in Dr. Waibel’s town of Noblesville, Indiana, near the Riley Hospital for Children where he was receiving care.
In the meeting, the school superintendent was joined by Otis Bowen, the head of Health & Human Services in Washington, D.C., and a former governor of Indiana, as well as Woody Myers, MD, the head of the Indiana State Medical Association. They enlisted Waibel’s help in speaking to students and the local community about HIV and AIDS prior to White’s arrival.
“For three weeks, we educated students so that they wouldn’t be nervous that Ryan was going to be contagious, and through that I gained this incredible insight into a new disease,” says Dr. Waibel.
During her senior year, she got to know Ryan’s family and helped his mother, a factory worker, by taking him to doctor’s appointments. “When I met Dr. Martin Kleinman, Ryan’s pediatric and infectious disease doctor, I thought, that’s it. I want to be a doctor,” says Dr. Waibel.
During her senior year, she appeared on Nightline and spoke in front of Congress. “I met and got to know Surgeon General C. Everett Koop really well. He actually wrote my letters of recommendation for both medical school and residency,” says Dr. Waibel. “Ryan was extraordinary, and the experience set a new path for me personally. I saw that medicine was a field in which you could really make an impact and help other people.”
A Passion for Lasers
Today, Dr. Waibel is director of the Miami Dermatology & Laser Institute, a combination general and cosmetic dermatology practice that also performs research and clinical trials. She is a leader in the use of lasers for traumatic and burn scars and helped to pioneer many of the treatment protocols used today.
Her passion for lasers started early in her career. As a medical student at Wright State University, she fell in love with surgery. “That you could have a patient who was so sick with a bad gall bladder or appendix, take them into surgery and remove it, and then they were fine, was incredible,” she says. So when the head of surgery, Colonel Robert P. Turk, MD, recommended dermatology, she was a bit taken aback.
“He said ‘You’re really smart and you have really good hands, but you should be a dermatologist. I want you to go to the University of Cincinnati and spend some time with Dr. William Hanke,’ and I did, because I admired Dr. Turk,” she says.
The first day, she watched Dr. Hanke perform a laser treatment on a pediatric patient with a port wine stain. “I was like, that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do,” says Dr. Waibel. “I went into dermatology just so I would be able to work with lasers, and now I have 40 of them in my practice.”
Photo by Tom Clark.