A Change of Heart
By Joanna Topor MacKenzie
Pediatric Surgery, Advocate Hope Children's Hospital
As medical techniques go, the Ilbawi procedure is fairly daunting. In basic terms, it involves switching the location of the blood vessels leading into and out of the heart—a delicate task complicated by the fact that doctors perform the procedure on months-old babies whose hearts, marred by a congenital defect, are only as big as a walnut.
Though not many of his patients require this complex surgery, each of the infants under the care of Michel Ilbawi (who pioneered the procedure) is battling some form of heart disease that, without his skilled intervention, can have huge—and too often fatal—consequences. "I carry these patients with me in my mind all the time," says Ilbawi. "When you serve a baby, you try to do the best for that child. You hope you can provide the baby with a heart that would serve him for 80 years so that he can have a normal life."
Driven by that quest, Ilbawi has made research and innovation as much of his practice as surgery and caregiving. Originally from Lebanon, where he studied at the American University of Beirut, Ilbawi specialized in pediatric cardiac surgery at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University Hospitals and at Northwestern University. At Advocate Hope Children's Hospital, Ilbawi divides his time between the operating room—where most days he performs four or five grueling surgeries—and the lecture hall. "To continue improving the profession, you need to teach and transmit your knowledge and experience to the younger generation," he says, referring to the students, residents, and fellows training with him. Ilbawi also regularly attends conferences around the world, to "exchange ideas and expand my horizons," he says.
Despite several offers to relocate, Ilbawi has never wanted to leave the Chicago area, where he has lived for close to 30 years. "It's a lovely city," he says—and his proximity to Lake Michigan allows him to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: boating. Of course, the 16-hour days and the weekends on call barely leave Ilbawi time to relax with his wife and his two grown sons, who are pursuing medical careers.
Ilbawi does acknowledge that his job has one big payoff: the annual picnics, sponsored by the hospital, for all the patients—some well into their 20s and with children of their own—cared for over the years by Ilbawi and his staff. "Nothing is more gratifying than to see them recover and do well," says Ilbawi—not even having a daunting medical procedure named after you.
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp