Ask Dr. Tina Elkins how she became fascinated by otolaryngology, a medical specialty focused on the ears, nose and throat (ENT), and the UNLV Medicine physician remembers summer days in Texas that would shape the life-long professional direction of her life.
Growing up, Elkins attended a summer camp in La Grange, Texas, that would intermix deaf camp children with hearing children. She became friends with one of the deaf campers, meeting her every summer at camp. All year long Elkins studied sign language books so that she could speak with her friend more easily.
And so began her interest in ENT. She is now an assistant professor with the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV department of otolaryngology — head and neck surgery,
She decided to go into speech pathology and audiology for her bachelor’s degree and then continue on to medical school, having already made up her mind about her chosen specialty. Before moving to Las Vegas in 2018 to join UNLV as an ENT generalist, she was the primary owner of a successful general ENT practice outside Dallas for 14 years. The scope of her practice has been broad, providing treatment for conditions that include difficulty breathing due to septal deviation or tonsil enlargement, blocked sinuses, allergies, ear infections, throat infections, hearing loss, thyroid masses, skin cancers, head and neck cancers, and facial trauma.
When did your interest in science/medicine first show itself?
I remember for a first-grade project, which I still have at my parents' house, I did a presentation on the circulatory system. I would stay up all night reading the encyclopedias about various health issues and anatomy sections.
Who inspired you to become a physician?
My grandmother was a nurse’s aide at a local retirement home in Houston and I enjoyed hearing her stories about work. Also, my mother, who’s been dealing with Type 1 diabetes since age 15. She was in and out of the hospital when I was young and I wished I could do something for her. She was in the hospital for about one month after surgery when I was about 8 years old. I was taken under the wing of one of her nurses. She would let me help her collect vital signs on patients. I learned to talk to patients yet work at the same time. Nowadays this wouldn’t happen but I am thankful for the experiences as it introduced me to medicine at a young age.
How has COVID-19 affected you, your practice?
In a span of four days, I lost my mentor, a radiologist from my hometown, and my cousin to COVID. That was not an easy week. I was unable to travel to their respective funerals, [but I] look forward to paying my respects in the coming months. At work, I saw co-workers coming together to figure out the safest way for us to treat our patients and protect ourselves. We did much more telemedicine. We’d have families of patients help us get creative with a camera so we could see what was wrong with a patient. We have seen the medical community work quickly together to keep people as safe as possible.
What’s your biggest pet peeve at work or in life?
Gum chewing. It is like nails on a chalkboard when I am operating. My scrub tech in Texas would sometimes do it just to make me laugh and see how many ‘chews’ she could get in before I noticed. Let’s just say it wasn’t many! My (three) kids to this day do not even know how to chew gum.
What discovery in your field do you wish you had made?
I wish that I would have developed various surgical instruments, particularly some of those I use in sinus procedures. I collect ENT surgical instruments and medical books from the 1800s. It is interesting because most of the instruments we use today are similar to the initial prototype. Our newer instruments are usually lighter, sleeker, or with minor changes. How a surgeon developed the instrument, designed it, and then manufactured it amazes me. Oh, to have that engineering ability.
What’s the last band you kept on replay?
I love music and often use it to get my mind right for work, surgery, calls, etc. The band can vary from time to time and you might see me dancing in the car depending on the music. My three go-to's are Prince, Justin Timberlake, and Abba, although the other day I was playing 1990s country and two-stepping in the kitchen with my 15-year-old.
What would you change about yourself?
Finding a way to turn off my brain. Even when I am on vacation or out with my family, I am thinking about work, taking a call, or coordinating a plan with the office. My family will tell you there is Dr. Elkins and there is Tina. I really have to be better being just Tina and mom when I am with them.
What trait do you like most about yourself?
My compassion for people. I really enjoy my patients, even the difficult ones. While some days it can be difficult, I remind myself that even that difficult patient is having a problem, and it is my job to figure it out. Now, they may not like my answer, but it is my obligation to not "blow them off" just because they may have struck a nerve. Most people, by the time we see them, are tired and exhausted and really just want you to help them.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
When I have had a long day and just want to treat myself, I stop at Trader Joe’s and get their black licorice. It is my favorite. I used to have my audiologist hide it in the office to ensure I would not eat the whole bag right away.
Favorite tradition for your family?
My favorite is at Christmas. My husband makes a rib roast every year. He has a certain method of cooking that involves not opening the oven for several hours. Every year we get a threatening sign on the oven door warning us to stay away. The kids love it.