Breakfast in Berlin: Nicola Dames meets Prof Nils Habbe

It’s lush, it’s Berlin, it’s Tiergarten Park, it’s Germany… and it’s BDRF guest blogger Nicola Dames meets Professor Nils Habbe.

The highly esteemed Prof Habbe no less. And with five demanding kilometers just run, there’s a slight exhaustion in the air. However, with fitness enthusiast Nils, pounding the tarmac is time out from his day job pounding the hospital wards. With Prof Habbe, fluent in English, it’s a case of forget any childish stereotypes, Prof Habbe has a very, very good sense of humour.

It’s a buffet breakfast, pots of tea ready for pouring, the steam indicating piping hot, the comfortable smell of coffee drifts over cereals, snacks and eggs to set up for the day – the scene is set for a fitting interview. As Chief of the Department of Surgery and Coloproctology, at the DKD Helios Klinik Wiesbaden, which is one of the oldest specialized colorectal/coloproctology units in Germany, Prof Habbe sums up his pioneering work in modest tones, saying: “We focus on colorectal surgery and coloproctology in a highly specialized and high-volume manner.”

Without elaborating to the point of boasting, Nils downplays his impact. It’s obviously more than a job but the pretence is that it is a job. But the word “Colorectal” can’t help bring to mind the idea of “yucky” for so many people. Pushed to reflect on his choice of medical specialism, Habbe responds: “When I was a young resident in the outpatient department rotation, my senior resident supervising me was specialized in that field and taught it to me. Later I was promoted to attending as a position in that specific field opened up.” Was it providential that he ended up in the area of Coloproctology? there is something which suggests so.

With the tea, eggs, toast and fresh orange juice greedily consumed, incontinence springs to mind. Prof Habbe states: “Incontinence has a detrimental effect on Quality of Life, and no one talks about it.” With it not being the George Clooney of the medical world, the Germany number one adds: “So you really can make a difference for lots of patients. Its not as fancy as pancreatic surgery, but you help lots of patients to have a better life.” And with a nod and a wink, the Professor expert acknowledges the hidden reality that even George Clooney goes to the loo. But it is clear, this is more than a job, this is – believe it or not – a passion.

Although a highly intelligent man, with the grades to prove it, Professor Habbe is also a straight shooter. He doesn’t make complicated that which doesn’t need to be made complicated. Asked about malnutrition having been an issue but now obesity being the issue, Habbe gives his view on the move from one extreme to another: “Less sports, more food consumption and bad food consumption at that. For me it´s easy maths. Just burn what you are eating in your daily routine.”

Setting an example works too. Habbe emphasizes that if a patient is in front of an overweight doctor, with an odour of tobacco, then surely this is going to have an effect on a patient. For Prof Habbe a health professional is also helping a patient by being with them on the same journey to a healthier lifestyle: “Just talking about the obvious positive effects won’t help. You need to provide a bespoke approach. Ranging from sports to education to psychotherapy.”

However Prof Habbe does not lose his human and professional side, while acknowledging that it would be preferable for a health professional to be healthy, “they are still humans. But if so, then it´s an asset.”. The perfection is too good to be true. I ask if there was one thing he could change about his professional role, what would that be? Laughing, Prof Habbe replies:  “I am a quite patient person, but sometimes I need to be even more patient….”. But professional to the core, no amount of teasing, hinting or questioning can squeeze out of him examples of when more patience is essential.

With Habbe, professional does not exclude personal. He understands from the person what the patient is going through when faced with surgery. Lingering on the daunting knowledge that you are going to wake up with a bag on your belly – a bag for poo at that, is heavy going for anyone. But the expert Prof Habbe always has some wise words of advice, and he is always prepared to pre-empt his patients with the truth that “Life goes on! You can do whatever you want! You are not alone, there are lots of support groups out there, You will still poo and pee.”

Habbe laughs: “Nobody escapes needing the toilet! And I suppose that’s what I love about this field, it is very humanizing, for all involved, both patient and surgeon, and everything in between.” This is the key thing Habbe always tells his patients. And again his sense of humour comes out. Mimmicking the great British comedian Les Dawson, he tells the joke of the patient who asks if he will be able to play the piano once the surgery is over. When the surgeon comforts him by saying “yes”, the patient says how happy he is with that news as he has never learnt how to play the piano! Habbe then simply repeats what he has said hundreds of times to his many patients: “Life goes on! You can do whatever you want! Perhaps not benchpressing 200kg. But still do everything!”

Although aware of the importance of the psychological, he clearly admits his focus is the physical. And this links to his ideas of the importance of experts and exercise: “Sports is important for me…I am a very physical person.”   But on a lighter note, Prof Habbe suddenly becomes the man prior to medical school. Asked what he would have loved to have been if he had not been a Colorectal Surgeon, he answers straight away: “An archaeologist.” Wow, where did that come from???

But time is up. I’ve a plane to catch back to Glasgow. But as the Man from Germany offers his goodbyes and turns away to his chosen profession, one can’t help wonder about the archaeology and Professor Habbe’s concern on how we live today and how we lived in the past.

Nicola Dames is the founder & CEO of Vanilla Blush, and a member of ACPGBI’s Patient Liaison group