Bullet Wounds and Breast Implants Plastic Surgeon Prefers War to Cocktail Parties

Enrique Steiger's day job is performing breast operations and facelifts on celebrities. But when he's not doing cosmetic surgery or attending glamorous cocktail parties, the Swiss doctor is saving lives in makeshift Red Cross hospitals on the battlefield.

By Dialika Krahe

The diplomat is lying on the operating table, his stomach opened up like a handbag, revealing a red inner lining of muscles, fat and blood. Outside the window, the morning sky shimmers in shades of blue and gray over Lake Zurich.

Enrique Steiger bends over the wound and cuts an excess piece of flesh from the edge. "He's actually a good-looking man," he says, "it's just that he had a bit of a paunch."

Steiger, 52, is tall, charming and tanned. He has a Colgate smile and Hollywood looks. Sometimes he injects a bit of Botox into his own forehead. In the soft light of his operating room, he looks as if he had just come back from a vacation at his house in the south of France. But the hint of a shadow under his eyes reveals that he must be exhausted. Just three days ago, Steiger returned from a war zone -- from his other life.

The anesthetized man lying on the operating table in front of him, who is also attractive and tanned, is from South America. He has crossed an ocean to pay Steiger 16,000 Swiss francs ($16,100 or €12,200) for a tummy-tuck. The cosmetic surgeon's practice in Zurich, with its white paneled walls and fresh flowers, is the go-to place for those who are unhappy with their appearance.

'I Like Breast Surgery'

The assistants, who are shapely and blonde and wear pink lipstick, hover like fairies over the herringbone parquet floors, offering patients coffee and tea in their velvety voices. There are thick photo albums on the tables in the waiting room, but it's unlikely that anyone ever has to wait here. Steiger's patients include politicians, actors and business executives -- "the top 5 percent of society," as he says.

They fly in from Hollywood and Abu Dhabi in their private jets, slipping through the back door after emerging from their limousines. These are the best clients of cosmetic surgeon Enrique Steiger. In his other life, patients arrive at humanitarian Enrique Steiger's clinic in wheelbarrows, sometimes barely alive.

"Could I have the scissors again, please," he says, as he pulls up the man's abdominal wall with two fingers. There is a hole where the man's navel used to be. "People are very attached to their navels," says Steiger, smiling as he uses his scalpel, "which is funny, because they're totally useless."

He hasn't had much sleep since his return from a war zone, but he has made three women happier, changing their cup size from A to B and from B to C. One of the women came from London and another from Paris, and now they are napping on the lower level, their heads resting on starched pillows, with fresh silicon in their 18,000-Swiss-franc breasts. He has also done a nose job, tightened a few eyelids and got rid of a few wrinkles with Botox injections, he says. "Our high season begins in September," he says. It's the end of summer, the perfect time to improve one's appearance for the next pool season, the winter ball season and the red carpets -- the perfect time for fuller lips and tighter buttocks. Facelifts are his favorite, says Steiger, "and breasts. I like breast surgery."

'A Luxury Hospital'

A few days earlier, Steiger was standing in a makeshift hospital tent, studying white bulletin boards where patient data are entered with magic marker in the language of war: gun shot wound, bomb blast, mine explosion.

He looks at the patients in their metal beds, staring at him with dull expressions in their eyes: seven seriously injured Afghan and Pakistani men and a small boy. "They're all my patients," says Steiger. "The team was nice enough to set it up this way for me." The walls are made of plastic and an odor of wounded flesh hangs in the air.

The field hospital where Steiger is working is in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Afghan border. Only two days earlier, insurgents and soldiers were exchanging gunfire here. There were several attacks on schools in a single week. Shots can be heard in the distance at night, while the wounded arrive from Afghanistan during the day. At the center of it all is Dr. Steiger from Zurich.

"I'm ecstatic," he says. "It's a great hospital." Most of the time he operates in the field, where conditions are "really primitive," in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Liberia. "But this here, this is a luxury hospital for me."

A New Mouth

He asks for a flashlight, which he uses to illuminate the face of the first patient on his rounds. The man, slender and with pale yellow skin, was shot in the mouth. Wearing a light blue hospital gown, he tells the doctor that he was driving his truck through the Swat Valley when he drove into the middle of an exchange of fire between Taliban and security forces. He ended up with a hole in his face where his mouth used to be, so that he could no longer eat properly and was unable to control the flow of saliva out of his mouth.

Then along came Dr. Steiger from Zurich and gave him a new mouth. "This one will close very well," says Steiger, telling the patient that he'll be able to remove the stitches in a few days.

For the last three days, Steiger has been working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the Surgical Hospital for Weapon Wounded, where he serves as a reconstruction specialist and emergency doctor. He is one of a few dozen surgeons working for the ICRC, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations in the world's war and crisis zones. Steiger just completed a mission in southern Afghanistan. Then he flew to Geneva for a briefing on his next mission. After that, he spent a day with his wife in a luxury hotel before flying to Peshawar via Abu Dhabi and Islamabad.

This city will be his home for the next three weeks. He will perform amputations, head surgery and shrapnel removal. Only then will he return to his breast clinic in Switzerland.


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