The story that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in May 2018 was compelling.
Mary Kay Duda’s life was saved by UNLV Medicine’s Dr. Charles St. Hill.
St. Hill, one of only three fellowship trained surgical oncologists in Nevada, performed a complex 10- hour surgery known as a Whipple procedure to remove a large tumor that enveloped her pancreas.
“I’ve been given the gift of life,” a grateful Duda would later tell St. Hill and reporter Jessie Bekker.
As Black History Month unfolds, St. Hill, an African American, hopes the story of how he became a surgeon will be found compelling enough to inspire other minority youths to go into medicine.
“That’s why Black History Month remains important,” said St. Hill, who stresses that he wants to be known as a fine surgeon, not a fine black surgeon. “If the history revealed in that month can inspire others to go into fields they might not otherwise attempt, it’s worthwhile.”
St. Hill, whose late father was an OB-GYN, says his mother told him that at the age of three he had already expressed the desire to be a surgeon. He notes that one reason his parents didn’t dismiss that desire as just a childhood fantasy was because of his extraordinary ability to sew at such a young age. — “Both my parents could sew and they taught me before I went to school — my dad actually could make men’s suits growing up in Barbados.”
When the snout fell off his teddy bear, St. Hill sewed it back on. Maybe, just maybe, his parents thought, that example of sewing while he was still a pre-school child was a precursor to his suturing as a surgeon.
St. Hill’s father first came to the United States to run track for Philander Smith College, a private black college in Arkansas. In 1969, he was in the first University of California at San Diego medical school class that admitted blacks. St. Hill said he was told by his father’s mentor at the school that threatening hang-up phone calls made by people unhappy with blacks at the school were not uncommon.
Three months before his father graduated from medical school, St. Hill was born. He attended San Diego private schools, where he did very well, but still ran into a few roadblocks on his way to becoming a surgeon. In high school in the early 90s, he had an English teacher that gave him a “C” for a grade even though he received straight “A’s“ on papers. When he asked why, he said the teacher replied, “People like you aren’t going to do anything with yourself anyway.” He said a math teacher did the same kind of thing — gave him a B- — after he received all A’s on tests. “You people aren’t going to do anything with yourselves anyway,” he was told. Stunned by the behavior and worried about making waves, he didn’t go to administrators for possible redress.
“I couldn’t get into AP courses (advanced placement) courses because of that,” he said. “And that could have played a large role in my getting into the college I wanted.”
Even at the University of California at Berkeley, a school considered a hotbed of liberalism, St. Hill ran into racial problems, eventually graduating with a degree in molecular and cell biology. “I loved my time at Berkeley, but even there, I couldn’t get away from the race thing entirely.”
Race, he said, was not a factor from students or professors while he was pursuing his medical degree at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine; a general surgery residency at the University of Nevada School of Medicine; and a surgical oncology and a Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary fellowship from the University of Louisville.
His experience was so positive in Nevada that he returned in 2017. He is now a tenure-track assistant professor of surgery in the UNLV School of Medicine.
As a practicing physician, he has run into a few people who say they don’t want to be operated on by a black doctor. “I don’t take it personally,” he said. “It’s just the way some people are in our country. It’s part of our culture.”
He recalls with a chuckle that one Asian American woman sought him out because he was a black surgeon. “She said I really had to be good if they allowed a black man to be a surgeon.”
St. Hill has been recognized as one of the country’s finest technical surgeons, winning the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons “Top Gun” competition in 2010. In the competition, surgeons compete on virtual anatomy simulators. He also was a finalist in 2009.
St. Hill knows that he’s had it much easier than many other blacks who wanted to go into medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, few medical schools would admit black students regardless of their academic excellence. Medical education was limited to a few black medical colleges, including Howard University College of Medicine and Meharry Medical College in Nashville. In 2008, the American Medical Association, called by many economists the strongest trade union in the United States, issued an apology to black physicians. It had excluded black physicians from its ranks for nearly a century after the Civil War, closing several black medical schools and virtually ensuring that most black physicians were kept from specialties like surgery as well as research.
Today, the AMA, which has 220,000 members, works to rectify its past. It funds pipeline programs for aspiring students, offers financial aid to underrepresented students and supports programs to cultivate minority faculty members.
St. Hill, who says he will do all he can to help young people enter the medical profession, enjoys what he does as a clinician, teacher and researcher.
His research is regularly published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Surgical Oncology. Now in his 40’s, St. Hill, the married father of two young children, expects to continue doing what he’s doing.
“I love what I do. I get to work with students — they keep you on top of your game. And I get to work with patients – by making them feel better. My goal is just to keep pushing the envelope with surgical oncology. I want people to be able to have better lives.”
Photo: Provided by UNLV School of Medicine, Grateful Patient Hugs Dr. St. Hill