When Dr. Yvonne Carter was in high school – she recently signed on with the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV as an associate professor in thoracic surgery – she recalls that a guidance counselor told her: “You should consider going to a junior college because you’ll never get into college.”
It was, the surgeon says, the worst advice she ever received.
Given her CV/resume, it’s not difficult to understand why she feels that way.
A native Californian, she was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the nation’s finest universities, where she majored in physiology. Then she received her medical education at the prestigious Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City.
She completed her general surgery training at the University of Washington – she took two years off from her general surgery training to partake in cardiothoracic surgery research – and her cardiothoracic surgery training at Ohio State University before completing a general thoracic surgery fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She completed her training at Duke University with a fellowship in cardiothoracic transplant surgery. A cardiothoracic surgeon is trained in two specialities – cardiac (heart) surgery and thoracic (chest organs) surgery.
“My high academic record was ignored at my high school in Irvine by my guidance counselor and in general there. There was a belief that minority students didn’t belong in honors classes – my mother made the school give them to me,” says Dr. Carter, who began her sterling 16-year surgical career as an assistant professor at Georgetown University. “The truth is I hated high school. It wasn’t academically challenging.”
Why did you decide to become a surgeon?
When my mother suffered a heart attack, I was in the third grade. I watched the doctors stand around my mom’s hospital bed and talk, but they didn’t seem to be helping her. I decided then that I wanted to be a surgeon, so I could actually fix people. I like the immediate gratification. I don't have to wait long to see the impact I have on someone’s life.
Who had the biggest influence on you?
My mother. She worked as an administrative assistant at a community college, before she enrolled in college to pursue her bachelor’s degree and teaching credentials. She became a junior high school math and science teacher in Los Angeles. She worked hard, was a single mother for me and my two sisters. My twin is a physician, and my older sister majored in architectural engineering.
How did your mother stress the importance of education?
School always came first. If our GPA fell below a B average, we were not allowed to do any extracurricular activities. Even before we started school when we were little, my mother used to buy math, grammar, and writing workbooks so we could play school. She bought us desks, backpacks, lunch boxes, everything you’d have for school. My mother believes a college education is necessary to succeed in this country, and required us to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. My twin and I went to kindergarten when we were four since we were already reading and writing.
What is something that helped make science interesting to you?
With her college connections, my mother was able to secure a sheep brain for me to do my honors biology project in high school. At the time, I was interested in the nervous system.
Why the interest in cardiothoracic surgery?
A group of CT surgeons at a San Francisco hospital I worked at in college had encouraged my interest in medical school and cardiothoracic surgery. Until then, most people were telling me it wasn’t possible. I ended up changing my mind after my interactions with them. I went to Columbia knowing what I wanted to specialize in, I just didn’t plan on being interested in more than just open heart surgery. Cardiothoracic surgery has become very specialized over the years. After hearing for so long that lung transplantation didn't work, I had an amazing thoracic transplant surgery experience with Dr. Charles Hoopes during my general thoracic surgery fellowship at UCSF. He encouraged me to apply for the same thoracic transplant surgery fellowship at Duke that he did. Although I no longer do heart and lung transplant surgery, the extensive training has aided me in the complex cases I encountered over the years.
Why did you join the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine?
Dr. Erik Kubiak encouraged me to come here to be a part of program development and the expansion of the medical school. The presence of Dr. Arthur Oliver Romero, an interventional pulmonologist, was key; he’s the necessary partner to offer multidisciplinary care to patients with lung cancer. Together, I believe we can build a multidisciplinary thoracic oncology team that will improve care for the people of Las Vegas.
Your bio shows a strong interest in athletics. Has that helped you in medicine?
Growing up I was always doing something – skateboarding, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and field, and cross country. I believe athletics are a great model for excellent patient care – a team approach where every member has a role… I’ve continued to run over the years, and in recent years appreciated the therapeutic effect it has on me. It quiets my brain.
Tell us about a time in your life where you'd like a "Do-over."
When I broke my leg during my freshman year of high school, I thought my chances of competing in the 800 meters in the Olympics were over and concentrated solely on academics. I had been told before the injury that my speed would end up being good enough. Now that I see what orthopedic surgery can do, I wish I hadn’t given up that dream.
What was the last show you binge-watched?
I just binged all five seasons of A Million Little Things. It’s a great show with a diverse cast that addresses so many issues that real people are dealing with everyday.
What's your guilty pleasure?
What would your last meal be? And how does that represent you?
Thai food. I can be spicy and am definitely not for everyone.