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Interview with Chief Physician Prof Dr Vera Bernet

Prof. Dr. med. Vera Bernet

Prof. Dr. med. Vera Bernet

November 7, 2023

reading time

15 min

Read the inspiring interview with Chief Physician Prof Dr Vera Bernet about emotional moments in her career, challenges and changes in the professional field of neonatology as well as pressure, perfectionism and free time.

Professor Vera Bernet, is there a particular moment in your life that made you decide to specialise in paediatric and adolescent medicine, especially neonatology?

Yes, there was: When I was a junior assistant in the obstetrics department, back when I was in nursing school, a junior doctor in neonatology approached me and asked me if I would be interested in taking part in the neonatal examination. I enthusiastically agreed and accompanied her. This experience made a deep impression on me. I always knew that I wanted to work in paediatrics, but at first I was unsure whether I should choose paediatrics or child psychiatry. I then got a taste of both areas, but quickly realised that paediatric psychiatry wasn't my thing after all. When I got to know neonatology better, I realised that that was exactly what I wanted to do. It's very exciting and it's forward-looking for the children and the family. That's how I came to neonatology.

Here at Zollikerberg Hospital, you have the position of Head Physician in Neonatology as well as in Paediatric Permanence - how do you experience this dual role?

I clearly see myself as a neonatologist. In paediatric permanence, my focus is on management, as I am no longer close enough to general paediatrics due to my specialisation. I see the opportunity there to do good medicine and, above all, to train young doctors and inspire them for the field. My heart beats for neonatology: in addition to my role as head, I am also actively involved at the bedside. Here, too, I attach great importance to training. I think that when you've worked in medicine for many years, it's important to pass on the knowledge you've acquired and to inspire and guide young doctors.

Speaking of promoting young talent: What advice would you give to doctors at the start of their career?

Ask questions and scrutinise - they already do that much more today than we used to. Nevertheless, we have to create the space for them to ask questions so that they don't have the feeling: what will people think of me if I ask or say that I don't know now?

I also advise them to talk about their experiences. Many of the younger doctors I've met already take things more for granted and demand what we haven't demanded. This is the only way to keep the profession fun. If you don't ask questions, don't scrutinise, don't discuss, aren't open to new things, but also to criticism, then it becomes difficult.

And what skills or qualities do you think are essential in neonatology?

In my opinion, as a doctor you should have a strong emotional intelligence, and if you want to go into neonatology, you should be enthusiastic about acute medicine. It also requires a fascination for dealing with a certain amount of stress and the ability to be enthusiastic about challenges. I've coached many young men and women who wanted to go down this path and I think it's something you can feel - in the sense of: This is what I want to do. A large part of our work in neonatology also involves looking after parents; in fact, they make up around fifty per cent of our work. We support and accompany families during this difficult time. This requires a high level of resilience and stress tolerance.

Can you tell us about the challenges you have faced in the course of your career?

The one challenge is quite clear: being a woman and having a career. I always had the feeling that I had to achieve at least as much, be at least as committed and fight for every minute of my research. I've done a lot of work on career planning and equal opportunities, and I think paediatrics is an incredibly good example: Ninety per cent in paediatrics are women, but you can count female chief physicians on two hands in Switzerland. This is because there has still been no social change. And when I hear that it's because women don't want to take on responsibility - no, it's not because of that at all. I know so many women who would love to give so much more. But it's the circumstances.

I have a husband who has always said, do it, I think it's great and I'll support you - many women don't have that. Then they both want to pursue careers... That's still very difficult in our society. I'm not someone who wants a quota, but fair opportunities, and unfortunately that's still not the case these days. At the same time, we also need to ensure that many more women are trained to position themselves, to speak out, to go public.

What do you think of when you remember moving moments in your day-to-day work?

I have a lot of patients in mind. There are those patients in life that you never forget. One of them is certainly the first patient who died. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. I couldn't even go home during the care, I just stayed, sometimes for 36 hours at a time, maybe lying down for an hour in between - and he still died. My boss at the time said to me: Vera, you could camp here for weeks and he would die, we can't change it, we did everything we could. That had a tremendous impact on me, because up until that point I had the feeling that I had become a doctor to save lives and that I would be able to save everyone. Those are moments when you think you've chosen the wrong profession.

But then there are also a lot of children who have stayed with me, where we were able to do something really good and who turned into something great, and their parents were infinitely grateful. I have many children like that in mind.

I always say that the moment you no longer care about what happens to patients and their families, you should stop doing this job. When I have to go to an emergency at night, I'm still full of adrenaline. It's not that I think I've resuscitated thousands of times in my life, but I think, what will I expect this time and how will we master it - but always with the certainty that I know exactly what I'm doing and I know that we're all doing our best. Nevertheless, it can unfortunately happen that a patient dies.

What differences or changes do you see in your profession compared to the past?

The unwavering dedication to the profession, which was undoubtedly more pronounced in my generation, is more of a rarity today - but it doesn't have to be. You can be an outstanding doctor and have a passion for your profession, even if you draw clear boundaries between your professional and private life and find a balance. I don't judge one or the other.

In my generation, we worked 100 to 120 hours a week, were completely exhausted and wondered how we could still work. But it worked. We weren't and aren't perfect, but I think we had a different resilience back then and defined work as an important part of our lives. Nevertheless, I never had the feeling that my life was passing me by. When I had my daughter, I knew what was important in my life: that was and is my family. Of course, I wouldn't have been able to work if I didn't have a partner who was 150 per cent supportive, that wouldn't have been possible.

I don't believe that future generations have to adapt to us, but that we have to adapt to them, because we can't turn back the clock. For me, it is quite clear that we must and can inspire future generations for the profession.

How do you personally deal with stress and pressure?

In different ways. I can deal with it today because I have learnt, especially in recent years, that I can always find a way out. However, that doesn't mean that I'm particularly enthusiastic when things pile up in a day, such as sickness absence or job cancellations, because that also increases the pressure on the team. In my work, I have the certainty that I can do it and get it done, but if you were to ask outsiders, they would perhaps say that on days like that, she's a lot grumpier. As a rule, however, I'm a very upbeat and positive person.

Then there are the endlessly stressful times when I realise that it's time to relax and recharge my batteries. The longer I do this, the better I get at it. You need more rest the older you get, that's just the way it is. When I used to have to go on night duty, I could carry on working the next day without any problems. Nowadays, I realise that my battery is empty by 11.00 a.m. and I have to take a power nap when I get home. That would have been different ten years ago and even more so twenty years ago. I'm more of a person who needs two signals from my body that it's time to regenerate.

Do you also have time for hobbies or sport?

Yes, I make the time. I usually jog between three and five kilometres twice a week, not for long, I don't have enough time for that. And when I can, I go golfing with my husband. It's like a holiday for me every time, golf courses are usually in beautiful places. You only have to fight with yourself and the ball, and you're usually totally at peace. When I can do that with my husband, I feel like the most balanced person ever.

As a head physician, you certainly have to set high standards for your work. Would you say you are a perfectionist?

Yes, that's my personality. I'm aware of that, but I don't expect others to be. It's not that I think you have to be like me to have a career. Perfectionism can also get in the way and I have learnt to deal with my perfectionism. Sometimes I can be very strict with myself and with others. Then I say something where I think: "Vera, you could have kept that to yourself" and apologise for it. You can also tell me directly that I was completely out of line and then I'm so sorry. But as I said, we're all not perfect and I'm aware of that. Fortunately, I'm still developing. I'm able to learn and take criticism. I take criticism to heart, and not just from my family and friends.

What would you have become if not a doctor?

My second wish was to become a primary school teacher. And what I find extremely exciting today is medical technology. I think it's something incredibly important, a really great field.

Do you still have any unfulfilled wishes with regard to your career?

Professionally, I have achieved my goals. Nevertheless, I still want to remain enthusiastic, develop the clinic where I work in the best possible way, support the next generation and have my successor in mind. Personally, I'm not one of those people who have goals in retirement, such as travelling the world or something similar. The only thing I'm planning to do is to stop working nights in the near future and then at some point take more time for myself and my sport. I still want to do something after I retire and stay connected. We doctors can't just say goodbye, we don't have enough new blood and in that sense I feel responsible. As long as I can make a contribution, I will do so if I can and if people let me.

Portrait photo of Prof Vera Bernet, MD

Prof. Dr. med. Vera Bernet

Chief Physician, Head of the Clinic for Neonatology and Paediatric Permanence, Hospital Management

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