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 -- he had already said he wanted to be a policeman or a fireman -- 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 -- he first came to the United States to run track for Philander Smith College, a private black college in Arkansas -- was in the first University of California at San Diego medical school class that admitted blacks in 1969. 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 did run 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 -- St. Hill graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology from the school considered a hotbed of liberalism -- St. Hill said he ran into racial problems. “I loved my time at Berkeley, but even there you couldn’t get away from the race thing entirely.”
He said he received a “C+” in a science lab section after four students told the teaching assistant that they did his lab papers for him, when, in fact, he was the one that did the papers for the group that received “A’s.” “I told the teaching assistant what actually happened and told him to report what happened to the professor. And he said, 'Who do you think he’s going to believe -- me or you?'”
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.