It’s not unusual for Victoria Wittgen to be recognized by her last name.
Victoria, a first-year medical student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, is the third generation of Wittgens to attend SLU. Her mother, Dr. Catherine Wittgen, is a vascular and critical care surgeon at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and SLU Hospital, among others, and a tenured professor at the medical school. Her grandfather, Dr. Edward Wittgen Jr., is a retired orthopedic surgeon.
“It’s cool to have people recognize my name and say, ‘I know your mom; I love your mom; I know your grandpa; your grandpa trained me and made me who I am,’” she said.
As a young teenager, Victoria encountered one of her grandfather’s former patients while shopping at the mall. “The girl at the cash register saw my name on my card and said, ‘Do you know Ed Wittgen?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my grandpa,’” she said. “And she said, ‘He saved my life when I was little.’”
While attending Cor Jesu Academy, she started volunteering in the ambulatory care unit at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and discovered her own love of medicine.
“I remember seeing how much the providers were like family to some of their patients,” she said. “I saw how your hard work can directly translate to changing someone’s life.”
Her desire was confirmed as a pre-med undergraduate student at Boston College. She recalls reflecting on the “three Jesuit questions of discernment” — What do you enjoy doing? Are you good at it? Does the world need you to do it? — and finding the answers to be medicine, yes and yes.
Her mother made sure she knew that it was entirely up to her to choose her own career path. When Victoria decided to apply to medical school, her mother told her, “There are no expectations here, but if you want to be a doctor, I am whole-heartedly behind it, and you will be great.”
Catherine remembers tagging along to the hospital as a child while her father did rounds, and she started working as a surgical technician at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital when she was just 15. As a tech in the operating room, she sometimes assisted in intense trauma cases. It was difficult — but she discovered early on that she could handle it.
“I really didn’t have any illusions that it’s always going to be sunshine and roses and happy families in recovery,” Catherine said. “I realized, bad things happen. They’re going to keep happening. But if I get the right training, and I work hard, maybe I can stop some of it.”
At the time, Catherine didn’t know many female doctors, let alone surgeons. “You had to have your own belief that you could do this, and luckily, my father shared the belief that this was a possible thing,” she said.
Catherine became the first female vascular surgery fellow at Harvard University and the first female tenured professor of vascular surgery at SLU. She is triple board certified in general surgery, surgical critical care and vascular surgery. She serves as president of the medical staff at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and director of the non-invasive Vascular Laboratory at John Cochran Veterans Administration Hospital. She treats a wide range of vascular and critical care patients patients at many SSM Health locations including Saint Louis University Hospital, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital in Clayton.
Throughout her career, Catherine has anchored herself with the faith-filled mottos she has heard daily, starting with her time at Cor Jesu Academy. “Every time you started a class, every time there was an event: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in you; Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in Your love for me,’” she said.
At Saint Louis University Hospital (as it was known prior to becoming part of SSM Health) it was “For the greater glory of God and the health of His people.”
And now, at SSM Health, the daily motto is “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.”
“If you see it often enough, it does have an impact on you. There’s a reason you’re here. This is why you’re doing this,” she said.
“I don’t know how you do this if you don’t have that kind of grounding,” she continued. “Because otherwise, you know, you do four operations today. And what does it mean, if you don’t connect with the patients? It’s a dad who still has a job. It’s a grandpa who’s still alive. It’s somebody else who’s not going to have a stroke because of the things that you’ve done. It makes a difference.”
Victoria sees the love of Christ present in how her mother cares deeply for each of her patients.
“There are a lot of sacrifices that physicians have to make that might not always be comfortable or convenient,” Victoria said. “And I think really good physicians, like my mom and my grandpa, make those without thinking because they treat their patients like family.”
The “little ways” of caring for patients are critical, Catherine said. When delivering good news, celebrate with the patient; in difficult times, be straightforward and steady. When people are about to receive anesthesia before surgery, they’re often scared, so “I lay a hand in the center of their chest, like a comfort blanket, because I am here and I am with you. And I hold their hand. … We’re going to be here together, and we’re going to get this done,” she said.
“If someone in your family gets hurt, you want my mom on their case,” Victoria said.