In Good Company

Using power responsibly: Jill Waibel on lasers, fame, and new hope for patients in need

Vital Signs » Spring 2010
Photo of Jill Waibel, M.D.
Photo of triplets Jordan, Trae, and Chandra Berns who came to Waibel for a series of fractional laser treatments
Photo of triplets Jordan, Trae, and Chandra Berns who came to Waibel for a series of fractional laser treatments

Well before she even considered a future career in medicine, Jill Waibel, M.D. (’01), (then Jill Stewart) found herself near the center of national public health crisis. As a high school senior in Cicero, Indiana, in 1987, Waibel became a reluctant but passionate spokesperson when her school district welcomed a new student: Ryan White.

After contracting HIV/AIDS through a blood transfusion to help treat his hemophilia when he was just 13, White was basically exiled from his school and made an outcast in his town. He won legal battles to secure his right to attend school, but when many parents chose to withdraw their children, his mother decided it was time to move.

“Elton John bought Ryan a home not far from where we lived,” Waibel said. “Our school basically shut down the beginning of the year I was student body president, and said ‘We are going to accept this child.’”

Indiana’s previous governor was then serving as the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the president of the state medical association had worked with AIDS patients in San Francisco for years before relocating to Indiana.

“They basically all decided that we were going to set an example for the rest of the nation,” Waibel said, “and we were going to have the kids be educated so the adults couldn’t panic.”

Because Waibel lived near the Whites’ new home, his mother, Jeanne, asked her to drive him to school.

“We got to be very good friends,” Waibel said of White, “and he was very inspirational to me.”

In her dual capacity as a close friend of White’s and an elected student leader, Waibel found herself playing a key role in intensive outreach and education efforts. In addition to appearances on shows as diverse as Sesame Street and Nightline, she testified before a presidential commission on AIDS and worked with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D., Sc.D., who later awarded her a national Enhancement of Public and Community Education Award.

Although White lost his battle with AIDS in the spring of 1990, a few months before his high school graduation, his story helped to change public perceptions of the disease and energize efforts to understand and control it. On a personal level, his friendship and courage also inspired Waibel’s life’s work.

A future in medicine
Everything about her time as Ryan White’s friend and advocate had a profound effect on Waibel, sparking an interest in health care and fostering a desire to make a difference. She was also strongly influenced by one of White’s physicians: pediatric infectious disease specialist Marty Kleinman, M.D., of the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

“Once I met Dr. Kleinman,” Waibel said, “I knew I wanted to be a doctor.”

Waibel took the first step toward a future in medicine soon afterward, when she enrolled in Indiana University and began pursuing a bachelor of science degree in biology. Being at IU allowed her to stay close to her family and friends, including White. Soon after his passing, she founded a charity dance marathon in his memory that has become an annual tradition at the university and has raised more than $8.5 million for Riley Hospital to date.

While at IU, she also met her future husband, Andy. After graduation, the couple moved to Dayton, where Andy’s family still operates a thriving HVAC business. For two years, Waibel took graduate coursework in physiology and biophysics at Wright State, where she then enrolled in medical school.

“I interviewed multiple places and was accepted,” she said, but “I think I was drawn to that environment. One of the things I loved about Wright State is it’s very nurturing. They want everyone to succeed. They really look for human beings who care about the community and want to do philanthropy, and so I think that the environment and the kind of students that they’re making into doctors are very special. And I also think their faculty and their curriculum are outstanding.”

Entering a competitive specialty like dermatology, Waibel felt very well prepared, in part due to the school’s innovative educational model.

“We do so many procedures because it’s a community-based program,” she explained. “You get that kind of experience, and you can’t trade that for anything.”

In addition, Waibel was fortunate once again to encounter physicians whose expertise and example proved invaluable, including Gary LeRoy, M.D., associate dean of student affairs and admissions and associate professor of family medicine, and Robert Turk, M.D., FACS, clinical professor of surgery and director of undergraduate surgical education.

“I’ve had good mentors,” Waibel said, “and I’ve been very blessed to have great people in my life who have been an inspiration to me as a physician.

“Dr. LeRoy was very influential,” she added. “He’d see the patient as a human being, and remember the higher goals of medicine, and not forget why we go into the field. I think that’s so important for all of us—to keep the vision and to help people, and not just treat conditions.”

When considering specialties, Waibel was conflicted, because she was attracted to fields as varied as surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, and geriatrics.

“Dr. Turk just said, ‘You should do dermatology,’” Waibel said, and his recommendation turned out to be ideal.

“It is wonderful,” she said. “For me it’s a perfect fit. It’s a very diverse specialty that incorporates general medicine as well as specialty medicine. Any disease can go to the skin, so you have to know all your pediatrics and internal medicine, and then on top of that, you have to know all the dermatology, and you get to do surgery and work closely with other doctors.”

Getting “the laser bug”
Following her graduation in 2001, Waibel considered dermatology programs across the country and again decided to stay with Wright State. While her residency program was based in Dayton, she did rotations in Indiana and Cincinnati, where her work focused on laser surgery.

“I kind of got the laser bug at that point,” she said. “I thought lasers were going to be the wave of medicine’s future. They’re amazing. There’s no scar. It’s like taking a magic eraser and helping patients.”

After serving as chief resident and completing her residency program in 2005, Waibel entered private practice and began serving on the medical school faculty. At the same time, she was able to publish and present around the country based on her innovative work with lasers. While other surgeons had treated burn victims with limited success using traditional laser surgery, Waibel discovered something new.

Last edited on 09/22/2015.