From Recipient to Resident: Transplant Surgeon Followed Her Dream

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2010 Transplant Games

Yes, I Will Wisconsin

Silke Niederhaus, MD, remembers clearly the day she decided to be a transplant surgeon. She was 11 and undergoing a kidney transplant herself in Heidelberg, Germany, where she spent the first 19 years of her life. While explaining her upcoming procedure, her surgeon asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.


"When I told him I wanted to be a transplant surgeon, he just looked at me and said, 'Stay away from boys, because they'll ruin your career path,'" Dr. Niederhaus recalls with a laugh. "Once I had actually said out loud what I wanted to do, I decided that really was the career for me."


Now a surgical chief resident at UW Hospital and Clinics, Dr. Niederhaus became a transplant fellow in July. She did not heed her surgeon's advice (she married a physicist in 2009), but that has not hindered her career, which has gone in the exact direction she intended more than two decades ago.


A Childhood Filled with Doctors

Even at the age of four, Dr. Niederhaus was interested in medicine.


"I played with all kinds of doctor toys," she says. "Interestingly, my favorite toy was the 'bloody' syringe."


At 8 she was diagnosed with kidney disease. As her treatment continued, she learned how to perform a urinalysis, take blood pressure and measure heart rate-tests most adults do not even know how to do. She became even more fascinated with medicine.


When Dr. Niederhaus was 11, she had to go on peritoneal dialysis. Later that same year, in December 1988, she received the kidney transplant. The donor was a 9-month-old boy.


She rejected the kidney three times and consequently stayed in the hospital for a month and a half after the transplant. During that time, she had plenty of opportunities to witness transplant surgeons in action.


"I got along with the surgeons and wanted to be like them," she says. "I liked that they would tell me exactly what was going on so I could learn more about my disease. As time went on, I got smarter and smarter about the kidneys."


Her worst experience with a doctor was when she was first diagnosed at age 8. At the hospital, she requested the doctor put an IV in her elbow rather than in her hand so it would not hurt as much. In the middle of the process he changed his mind and, without telling her, put the IV in her hand instead.


"I screamed and fought, and it took about eight people to put the IV in," she says. "Lying does not work, and that is something I have always remembered as a doctor myself."


On the other end of the spectrum, she has fond memories of a surgeon who sat by her bedside in the middle of the night in the ICU and spent two hours explaining how her kidneys worked.


U.S. Transplant Games

In July, Dr. Niederhaus is taking part in the 2010 National Kidney Foundation's U.S. Transplant Games® in Madison. She is participating in three events: the "virtual" triathlon (the swimming, biking and running components are all on different days), 3-on-3 basketball and ballroom dancing.


"I am participating to raise awareness for transplantation and because I like to play sports," she says. "And my transplant fellow colleagues need something to laugh at."