Patrick B. Thomas M.D.

Patrick Thomas MD

Dr. Patrick B. Thomas is a gifted pediatric surgeon and surgical innovator. He is a proud graduate of the MUSC College of Medicine and the MUSC General Surgery residency program, where he holds the distinction of being the first Black graduate. He completed his Pediatric Fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Following fellowship, he spent twelve years at Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas, as the first Black pediatric surgeon delivering compassionate care for some of the region’s most fragile children.

A life-long learner and an early adopter of new and innovative technologies to aid in delivering optimal care to young patients and their families, Dr. Thomas recently completed a Master of Management in Clinical Informatics from Duke University School of Medicine. He currently serves as  Director of Digital Innovation in Pediatric Surgery at The University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine.

Dr. Thomas came from a humble family background based on faith, community, service and education. His father’s early career was in the U. S. Army, serving as a Commissioned Officer and 82nd Airborne Ranger. He was a Commanding Officer for the 82nd Airborne Division in the Vietnam War, served in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and received numerous awards for his service and bravery.  His mother, Eunice, was an enthusiastic educator, mentor and advocate for spiritual growth.  As a licensed Social Worker, she left no stone unturned while serving and creating impact in all social service fields from child health, mental health, family counseling to prisoner rehabilitation.  Dr. Thomas recognizes his mother as the wind underneath his wings that allows him to soar intentionally higher every day.  And although Dr. Thomas’ family moved around a lot with the military, he spent most of his childhood in North Carolina – mainly at Fort Bragg and in the Raleigh area.

“With my parent’s love of education and science, our family would have many math and science conversations around the dinner table,” Dr. Thomas recalls. “But my love for medicine stemmed from my older brother, Paul, who -- when he was two years of age  -- was involved in a tragic accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury.” After the accident, Paul, an otherwise healthy, happy child, was considered (in those days) an invalid, with limited mobility and potential.

“Paul couldn’t speak words, but he would speak with his eyes, and we could get a sense of what he was feeling,” said Dr. Thomas. “I was born after Paul’s injury. I only knew him as a human being who was also my brother, not a disabled person.” Paul had unique challenges, suffering from seizures and physical limitations, and there were hardships to taking care of him, but Dr. Thomas and his family were honored to care for Paul. 

The family would often take long road trips to Duke Children’s Hospital for Paul’s care. Dr. Thomas says he first became aware of other children with limitations during one of these trips. “I was about ten. It’s the first time I saw a variety of wheelchairs and adaptive devices the other kids had,” he said. “It was then that I said to my mom, ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up – I want to be a doctor and fix kids’ arms and legs to be straight so they could play again,’ he said. “Ultimately, I chose pediatric surgery.”

Paul passed at the age of 16. Dr. Thomas said he has so many happy memories of Paul, who taught him so much about life’s challenges. “Some thirty years later, every day, every patient and family encounter I have, I honor Paul’s memory with how I treat my patients with respect and dignity.”

At the age of ten, he also recalls his first experience with racism. He was walking home from school, and a car drove by. White people in the car shouted the N-word at him. “I was still an innocent child, but I just remember their taunt and how it made me feel  different,” he said. He went home and told his parents, who explained it was shameful for adults to speak to a child that way with such hatred. They explained it was the world he lived in, but they do not get to define who he was – that he could be anything he wanted to be. He excelled in high school and enrolled in Duke University, majoring in political science and studying history along with his pre-med courses.

Even though political science was not the traditional path for a pre-med student in the 1990’s, he believes the strong foundation in politics and American history has helped him throughout his career. “After all, what is more political than healthcare?” he asks. “My education helped me understand healthcare disparities and public policy issues surrounding health care early on.”

When he entered the Medical University of South Carolina, he was one of a few Black medical students. “At times, it could be tough, and as Black students, we experienced countless micro and macro aggressions, but my parents taught me to find a way to channel anger and frustration into creating something positive, realizing there’s so much more freedom and joy and happiness on the other side of the struggle,” he said.

The Black students banded together; they helped each other. They shared their stories, talking about experiences they had on different rotations in medical school. “We built our own camps with people who supported us. Often, they were African American people in the community, or worked in the cafeteria, or were the hospital operators who learned to know us by name.”  Dr. Thomas also said it was vital for him to get out in the community. He volunteered as a Big Brother at Courtney Middle School and supported health care awareness forums and promoted careers in STEM with Pastor Reverend Miller of Emmanuel AME Church.   He’s maintained these great relationships to this day.

“These are the people who grounded me,” he explained. “You know, from a physiological and psychological perspective, there are just so many burdens you can bear.   So, one of the greatest things that I will say, and when I think about my successes, are all the people that supported me during some tough moments and because of their support I carry them with me,” he said.

“One of the most influential people during my training at MUSC was Dr. Jacob Robison,” he explains. “I’m not sure how it was arranged for us to meet, but we met every week and nearly every Sunday.  He would have me over to his house for dinner with his family and every Monday I had block exams.” Dr. Thomas told Dr. Robison that, with all due respect, he could not hang out every Sunday when he had exams on a Monday and could utilize that time studying. He remembers Dr. Robison said to him “For the rest of your life, there’s always going to be something that you need to do. What’s important is that you carve out the time to spend with family.”

Dr. Thomas and Dr. RobisonDr. Thomas said he laughed and replied “You know my family’s not in medical school with me.” To which Dr. Robison replied, “Here in Charleston you are a part of my family.” And, it was set in stone. “From that point on, it has been me and Jay talking about real issues. We talked about race. We talked about discrimination. We talked candidly about the impact of what was going on. He was a man, I was a man, and there we were having real conversations and we respected one another.” Once Dr. Thomas was in residency, dinner get-togethers became harder but he would often visit Dr. Robison is his office. “He was – and still is - a great friend and a great mentor,” said Dr. Thomas. “In fact, this Christmas he sent me a Charter Membership for the International African American Museum in Charleston.”

During Dr. Thomas’ training at MUSC, he had the good fortune to serve on the admissions committee for the College of Medicine, which he said was a fantastic opportunity to help identify qualities and diverse life experiences of students that were assets (for students to be successful). He feels his contributions significantly helped change the culture of the admissions process and is honored to have had the chance to do so.

Dr. Thomas was considering fellowships in both Pediatric Surgery and Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery and was happy he matched into MUSC General Surgery because of the expertise in these areas. “Dr.  Crawford was the chair of the Department when I was there,” he said. “He was fair; he challenged everybody in a lot of different ways. I loved operating with him.” He is grateful to the surgical faculty who supported him. “The training was phenomenal,” he said. “I learned so much from Dr. Crawford in CT Surgery, and Dr. Othersen, Dr. Tagge, Dr. Hebra, Dr. Adamson and Dr. C.D. Smith, in Pediatric Surgery. They fostered a great learning environment.” He also thrived in his two years of research under the tutelage of Dr. Tagge in Pediatric Surgery and one year with Dr. Frank Spinale in Cardiothoracic Surgery Department as an AHA medical student research fellow.

“As an intern, Martin Blue, the only Black resident in the general surgery program, became a mentor to me.” Dr. Thomas explains he and Martin experienced many discriminatory challenges and biases from their peers. He said that despite all the challenges, when he and Martin worked together, their chemistry and work ethic was unparalleled with everything they did. “Martin took care of me – he prepared me for what I was up against and helped me develop strategies to overcome the hardships,” he said. “He eventually left the program and finished his general surgery training at another institution, but I am grateful for his perseverance, paving the way for my journey to be a successful one.”  Dr. Thomas was excited and further inspired when Dr. Blue returned to MUSC to complete his Plastic Surgery fellowship.    

Dr. Thomas recalls seeing the wall of graduates in the General Surgery office. They were predominantly all white men; there were no Black people on the wall. I would say to myself, ‘I will make sure that my picture is on the wall one day and be a part of the surgical history, so when there’s another Black student who walks in for an interview, or a surgical resident in the throes of training, they are able to see me and know it’s possible to press on and thrive,” he said. According to Dr. Thomas, if you don’t know your history, then you don’t know what has transpired and therefore, you don’t know the endless possibilities.

“When I would get frustrated with racism and discrimination, I would sit on the benches along the Battery. And I would look at the waves and look at the water off in the distance. And I would think about all of my ancestors that were stolen and brought to this country and were enslaved. But in spite of all that they suffered, they kept their dreams alive and fought for a bright, honorable, and prosperous future. And I would think about Martin Blue and what he went through and think about the other black surgical resident before Martin and what he went through. And it would give me strength, and I would say, ‘I will finish.’” When Dr. Thomas gave his Chief Resident graduation speech in 2005, he spoke about the need for more diversity and inclusion.

He applauds Dr. Baliga for choosing the direction the Department is moving in. “When I see Dr. Baliga, I see a phenomenal surgeon, mentor, educator, and human being,” he said. “Charleston is so blessed to have him. It’s tough to tackle these difficult issues, but he is doing it. And, Dr. Sharee Wright, who serves as vice chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Department of Surgery, is an invaluable asset in paving the way for more voices to be heard and helping to improve health disparities.”

Dr. Thomas says the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been amazing at accelerating telehealth, digital health advancements and catalyzing how clinicians are changing how they take care of patients. “In addition, there are significant changes in the 21st century from a political and public policy perspective, mandating transformation of the way that physicians take care of patients and empower their patients to advocate and participate in their healthcare journey,” he said.

“I’ve always had a growth mindset, so it’s interesting now to reflect upon my personal growth and breadth of experience in healthcare that I’ve obtained from when I was ten years of age and resolved to go into medicine to help make children’s lives better.  Decades later, I am thankful for the ability to create meaningful impact-rich opportunities involved in optimizing their healthcare,” he said. “And today, I think about families that have to travel long distances to a children’s hospital to get the care required for their child. I love working with my surgical partners and healthcare teams to strategize how to decrease those hardships and stresses.  By using innovative efforts and expanding how the patient experience can be enhanced through an Informatics lens, Telehealth, Augmented Reality and Machine Learning are important adjuncts taking center stage in healthcare.”

 “So whenever I do a Telehealth visit now with a family that lives hours away, I smile because I can address their healthcare needs and make them laugh simultaneously. On the monitor, it’s nice to take the mask off and be able to see their smiling faces. And now the only thing that I’m frustrated with is that there’s a limited amount of emojis I can access on the screen to make the kids laugh, right?” He asks. “As a child, my older brother Paul inspired me to become a doctor.  Today, I find as a physician with training in informatics, I’m so blessed to understand and continually explore what patient engagement really means. The mission to improve the health of children and then empower the people supporting them is one of the greatest experiences of a lifetime.

Dr. Thomas lives in Nebraska with his wife, Lea, a neonatal Intensive care nurse, and their two children, Leilani and Patrick.  “Lea is one of the greatest gifts God has blessed me with,” he said. “And I'm so blessed to have our kids together and to communicate our life experiences which in turn will help them grow to reach their own greatness. I pray that my son can find a woman in his lifetime that has the characteristics and attributes that Lea has because with all of life's twists and turns, you need somebody special there by your side.