The path to becoming a doctor proved to be difficult but worthwhile for Dr. Joseph Thornton, the first colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada.
Today an associate professor in the UNLV School of Medicine’s department of surgery, Thornton grew up in a single-family household in Chicago where funds were limited. His mother, who worked as a bartender, converted to Catholicism so that she could send her son to a parochial school where she felt the educational opportunities and discipline were better.
“The nuns and Christian Brothers really pushed me in school so I was also able to get some scholarships later,” he recalled.
Throughout high school Thornton worked 20 hours a week as an elevator operator to help pay his tuition, a job he would keep for his first two years at the University of Illinois-Chicago. During his last two undergraduate years, he worked 40 hours a week for the U.S. Post Office while taking up to 20 credit hours of college courses. An honor student, he functioned on three to four hours of sleep a night.
Finding the idea of helping sick people appealing, he spoke with a doctor about attending medical school.
“That doctor wanted to know if I had the grades for medical school and I told him I did, but I also told him I didn’t have any money,” Thornton said. “He said he’d make me a deal that if I got in I wouldn’t have to leave because of money. I asked him where he went to medical school and he said “Meharry,” so that’s where I applied.”
Located in Nashville, Tennessee, Meharry Medical College was the first medical school in the South for African-Americans. As it turned out, Thornton didn’t have to rely on the Chicago physician for his college expenses.
“'Lifers' at the Post Office wanted to see me go to medical school, so they pushed me to go to the U.S. Congressman’s office so I could get an Illinois Guaranteed Loan. When the people in that office found out my family voted Democratic, I got the loan without the collateral that a bank claimed I needed. That’s Chicago politics,” he said.
“Scholarship and loans got me through med school, but that doctor’s promise to help me out if I needed it gave me the confidence I’d make it for sure. It took a big weight off my shoulders.”
At Meharry, Thornton realized he had a passion for surgery. There, he also met his wife, who was in dental school. “Meharry turned out to be a place I loved. My daughter, who became a dermatologist, went there and so did my son-in-law, who’s a plastic surgeon.”
After completing his graduate surgical training in Chicago, he and his wife moved to Las Vegas in 1978.
“I was the first colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada. General surgeons who weren’t specifically trained in colorectal had been doing it,” he said. “I got busy so fast, you wouldn’t believe it." He said he was fortunate to be able to convince a retired colorectal surgeon living in Las Vegas to come out of retirement.
During his career, he estimates he’s done 10,000 colon resections — surgery that is performed to treat and prevent diseases and conditions that affect the colon, such as colon cancer.
In recent years, his surgical calendar includes a new procedure to deal with fecal incontinence, the inability to control bowel movements — a problem for nearly 18 million people. Unlike an old procedure where a person had to wear a bag outside the body, this 45-minute procedure involves the implantation of a neurostimulation therapeutic device that targets the communication problem between the brain and the nerves that control bowel function.
“People are so happy after this procedure — they say they’ve got their lives back. They can travel again, leave their homes without fear of an embarrassing accident “
Last year he began teaching at UNLV after 12 years as the head of the department of colorectal surgery at UNR.
“I really enjoy teaching. It keeps me young. I feel like I’m in my 40s,” said the 72-year-old Thornton.
He said he is excited that Dean Barbara Atkinson has UNLV’s medical students and the school engaged in projects in the community.
“Regularly reaching out to the community is so important for public health,” he said. “And now we’re going to have our students from Las Vegas going back to their high schools to talk with kids. We’re going to have many more Las Vegas children talking about a career in medicine.
“We need to reach out to lift them up and they need to know to grab our hand,” Thornton said. “I’m very optimistic that’s going to happen.”