STEM GLAM GALLERY: Wirginia Maixner
This week, our star is Wirginia Maixner, an Australian neurosurgeon and the director of neurosurgery at the Royal Children's Hospital. She is known for having performed the first auditory brainstem implant on a child in Australia in 2007, and later having separated the conjoined twins, Trishna and Krishna in 2009.
Maixner’s surgical career began as a result of her love for sewing and the admiration of her aunt, Australia’s first female flying doctor, as a child. Despite a warning from a superior during her student years that surgery "takes beautiful young women and turns them into ugly old women", her parents’ unwavering support and her own doggedness got her through her bachelor’s education in the University of Sydney, and she went on to become the third woman in Australia to be admitted to four-year neurosurgery training program in the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, even completing this program between an unexpected pregnancy.
She had earned great respect from colleagues with her talents and work ethic, and in 2001, she was appointed to the position of Director of the Royal Children's Hospital Neurosurgery Department, becoming one of the youngest neurosurgery department heads in Australia and the first female head of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital. In 2009, she became known worldwide after her successful operation of conjoined twins, Trishna and Krishna.
However, her success came with a price– she was often forced to choose her life-and-death surgeries over her daughter. In an interview, she said, “I had lots of times when my daughter was little and she'd stand spread-eagled in the doorway screaming 'Don't go' and you'd have to sort of peel her off the door. It's hard.” Thankfully, Maixner’s parents have been incredibly supportive of her career and have helped care for her daughter Harriott since her trainee years as a surgeon, even accompanying her to Canada and Paris for two years as she gained overseas hospital experience.
While her parents’ support paved the way for her surgical career, Maixner rose to the top in this male-dominated field due to her own tenacity, and her outstanding efforts have not gone unnoticed.
In 2010, the staff from the Royal Children’s Hospital presented her with the Chairman’s Medal, along with this heartfelt note of acknowledgment published on the hospital site:
Wirginia Maixner is the neurosurgeon's neurosurgeon.
As our Director of Neurosurgery, Wirginia has worked on countless operations, all requiring meticulous attention to detail and care.
We know that Wirginia led the team that worked on one of the most complicated cases in medical history - the successful separation of conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna. While she magnanimously shared the glory after the separation, for the two years prior, she shouldered most of the responsibility and risk, and became an advocate for ensuring the highest ethical, moral and clinical standards were upheld. The wonderful outcome for these children is testament to her commitment.
More recently, Wirginia worked on a procedure rarely used on children. She operated on a teenage boy who was kept awake during his operation to cut away the part of his brain that was causing his many epileptic seizures. This boy's parents feared he would never be able to climb a ladder, drive a car, or pursue the career of his choice in case he suddenly had a fit. But Wirginia turned that boy's life around, as she had done on countless occasions with so many other children, giving them a fresh start.
Her work in paediatric epilepsy has helped make The Royal Children's Hospital the recognised centre for paediatric epilepsy surgery in the Asia Pacific region. She established the Asia-Australasia advanced course in Paediatric Neurosurgery to provide expert training for young neurosurgeons. She has authored a number of landmark textbooks of Paediatric Neurosurgery. And as one of the first women trained in Neurosurgery, she continues to be an excellent role model and mentor to many young surgeons.
Wirginia is a team leader, but also a team worker who knows you cannot afford to be arrogant. Under her leadership, the Department of Neurosurgery excels - together and with other departments.
She performs her job with the utmost professionalism and humility. Her office is littered with thank you cards from patients, families, junior staff and colleagues.
She is a leading light, a consummate professional and extremely worthy of all our thanks and recognition.