As a little girl growing up in a single-parent household, Ebony Hilton ’04 thought that a career as a doctor seemed like a faraway dream. Now, as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, the accomplished physician teaches other young girls to pursue their passions.

by Jason Ryan
Photography by Brennan Wesley

They arrived bubbly and cheerful, each plopping down into chairs spread around a conference table. The girls sported funky shoes, pink and tie-dyed footwear that anyone outside of middle school would have trouble pulling off. They wore identical shirts, too, each of which read “GLOSS” across the chest, an acronym meaning Girls Loving OurSelves Successfully. Predictably, the T-shirts were pink.

Joining these 10 seventh-graders at James Simons School on upper King Street were a handful of mentors, including Ebony Hilton ’04. The women and girls began to chat, laughing together and then oohing and aahing when one student shared the contents of her Me Bag, which included goodies and mementos such as a basketball jersey, honor roll awards, trophies and old family photos.

And that’s what the GLOSS program is all about – helping girls feel connected and confident amid the blur of adolescence. GLOSS aims to empower middle school girls as they grapple with the growing stresses of peer pressure, family life and academics.

Hilton remembers all too well what a strange time those years can be.

Actions Matter — As the girls chatted away, their adult counterparts directed them to their first group activity. Mentor Florence Davis asked each girl to squeeze a glob of toothpaste on a plate before being told to place it back in the tube by using a toothpick. If the girls didn’t know it beforehand, they soon found out: it was a hopeless task. With this smart group, little explanation was needed for them to decode the larger lesson: be careful how you act, since some things are not easily undone.

Then came singing and spontaneous dancing, with much laughter when Principal (and mentor) Quenetta White needed help translating hip-hop lyrics. But then, as conversation continued, the mood shifted, with smiles soon giving way to tears. Leaving the fun and games behind, Hilton and the other mentors had asked the girls to share stories from their lives, to tell the group of any struggles they had experienced. One student broke down when talking about a sick family member, fearing he might die. As the girl sobbed, Hilton held her hand and soothed her.

“It’s natural to have emotions,” Hilton told the group. “It’s natural to feel weak.”

But the tears were just beginning. Other girls jumped in, one by one, each revealing well-concealed inner turmoil. Hilton stood up from her seat to give hugs as they shared story after story, each more gut-wrenching than the last. The girls told tales of health emergencies, severe family dysfunction and estrangement, relatives’ suicidal tendencies, gun violence and more.

“It’s just a lot of stuff right now,” understated one seventh-grader.

The stories continued. Tears kept falling. Tissue after tissue was grabbed. Many of the girls admitted that they kept their emotions bottled, not wanting to exacerbate the challenges they faced by weeping to family members. Hilton and the other mentors urged them to rethink this strategy.

“It’s not your responsibility to hold up the family,” Hilton told the young women. “It can make you physically sick to hold in all these emotions.”

When the stories and tears ceased, it was time to go – school was over for the day. The girls and mentors traded phone numbers and vowed to start a GLOSS Facebook page. Before the room cleared, Hilton offered one last piece of advice: “You should never feel like no one has your back or no one hears your voice.”

If anyone knows the importance of those words, it’s Hilton. Once upon a time, Dr. Ebony J. Hilton was one of those girls.

Ebony Hilton, College of CharlestonThe Rush of Caring — Unless you’re a marathon runner, you’ll have trouble keeping up with Ebony Hilton. The anesthesiologist essentially sprints through the corridors of the Medical University of South Carolina, dashing between assorted patients placed in her care. Hilton is a navy blue blur as she shuttles about in her hospital scrubs, running up and down stairs, bursting into surgical rooms and breezing into patient recovery areas. One gets the idea that if every nurse and doctor operated at Hilton’s speed, the hospital could probably shut down on weekends.

Yes, Hilton is fast, but she also benefits from knowing the layout of MUSC inside and out. Ever since 2004, when Hilton graduated magna cum laude from the College as a triple major who studied biochemistry, molecular biology and inorganic chemistry, the energetic, easygoing doctor has studied and worked at MUSC. She graduated from medical school in 2008, completed a four-year residency, and then finished a one-year critical care fellowship. In 2013 Hilton was hired as the first black female anesthesiologist at MUSC. Hilton says she chose to specialize in anesthesia because “you can be useful in every part of the hospital.”

One day in April, Hilton was being useful in at least two parts of the hospital: orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery. One of her first cases that day was an older man about to have his hip replaced. Hilton pulled back a curtain to find him on his side, being prepped by other doctors and nurses. A needle was being pushed into his lower back to anesthetize his right leg – a procedure that hardly looked comfortable for the patient. Letting her colleagues do their work, Hilton placed a comforting hand on the man’s bare foot. Then she was off, flying down hallways and stairwells, until she met her next patient, an older woman who had recently suffered a number of aneurysms.

Within an hour or so, this woman would undergo neurosurgery, with a surgeon placing two tiny, metal coils within the damaged vessels of her brain. Hilton quizzed the patient about her medical history, asking specifically about conditions – such as acid reflux – that might complicate anesthesia. Then Hilton patiently outlined what was about to happen during surgery, smiling politely when the patient interrupted to tell her how pretty she is.

Saying goodbye, Hilton scrambled back up a floor to an orthopedic surgical room, where she oversaw the hip replacement patient receive more anesthesia via his spine. Soon enough, it was back downstairs again, to administer anesthesia to the woman who was about to have her aneurysms treated, as she had just been wheeled into the operating room. The hustle and bustle is normal, with Hilton shifting between patients continually, and other doctors and nurses attending to patients in her absence.

As nurses and nurse anesthetists puttered about the woman with aneurysms, prepping her for surgery, Hilton directed the efforts while also chatting with the patient in an attempt to distract her. Hilton asked about the woman’s husband, who was waiting nearby, and how the two fell in love. Responding through an oxygen mask, the woman shared details of their engagement in a resort town.

“Fireworks and everything – that is so sweet,” said Hilton. “He did a good job.”

“Where did you get married,” Hilton asked next as the patient drifted off to sleep.

Hilton continued with her work, explaining that she often asks about a patient’s significant other, “so when they go to sleep, they’re thinking about something happy.”

Despite the lighthearted chitchat, Hilton remained vigilant, looking for warning signs in her patient. As the aneurysm surgery began without complication, a message alerted Hilton that she was needed back in the orthopedic operating room immediately– the hip replacement patient’s heart rate had become erratic. And so Hilton rushed off to see him, running up a flight of stairs at breakneck speed and rounding corners quickly. Entering the operating room, she quickly helped restore a normal heartbeat by adjusting the medicines entering the patient’s body.

Removing a surgical mask now stained with a dot of blood, Hilton set off again to tend to new patients and begin more surgeries. It was just 10:40 a.m. – four hours after Hilton started work – yet Hilton’s pedometer indicated she had taken 4,500 steps. In other words, Hilton had somehow managed to walk and run more than two full miles within hospital corridors cluttered and crowded with people and bulky, wire-trailing medical equipment. And the day was only half over.

Hilton3Dr. Hilton — As a child, Hilton preferred running outside, skipping through the creeks and woods of Spartanburg County in upstate South Carolina, more than 200 miles from Charleston. Hilton and her two sisters lived with their mom within the city of Spartanburg, but on weekends and summers the Hiltons would leave town to visit extended family in the small rural community of Little Africa, approximately 30 miles outside the city limits.

Hilton speaks warmly of her upbringing and the strong bond she shares with her mother and sisters. But Hilton also admits her childhood in a single-parent home was not always easy. Her mother worked in a Michelin tire facility, operating a forklift, and money was tight. Her father served in the Army, and was often overseas. As Hilton grew older, she became sensitive to the fact that her family was not quite like the ones presented in Little House on the Prairie and The Cosby Show.

“If it looks different than what you see, then it’s wrong,” she says of this disparity. “You think something is missing.”

At age 8, Hilton had a pivotal moment in her life. Upon learning her mother had previously suffered the loss of a newborn boy just days after his birth, a young Hilton pledged to become a doctor. If she were a doctor, the 8-year-old reasoned, maybe she could save babies like her brother.

Hilton’s mother took her middle daughter at her word. From that day forward, Hilton’s mother began addressing her daughter as Dr. Hilton. It didn’t matter that it would be almost 20 years before the rest of the world recognized her that same way.

To some it may seem like a small gesture, but that title meant everything to an ambitious little girl. The words “Dr. Hilton” were not just a name, but also a prophecy, a promise of good things to come. Hilton would not fail her family.

“I never once had a Plan B. I always knew it would work out … and that’s because someone believed in me,” Hilton says of
her mother.

Now Hilton feels compelled to help spread that faith, to inspire children and validate their dreams. To accomplish this, sometimes all it takes is showing up and talking. Within many impoverished black communities, there are often few, if any, doctors to serve as role models. If a black child never lays eyes on a black doctor, Hilton says, there’s little chance he or she will aspire to study and practice medicine. By mentoring students in GLOSS, Hilton hopes to serve as an example to young black women and to communicate that almost anything is possible with enough hard work.

“You can’t look at your situation for what it is,” says Hilton, “but what you envision it can be.”

Ebony Hilton, College of CharlestonListen Up — Having a mentor like Hilton is extremely powerful, says Vivian Bea, a surgeon at MUSC who co-founded GLOSS with White, the James Simons School principal.

“She has the gift of relating to different backgrounds and still being Dr. Hilton,” says Bea, who recruited Hilton to the mentoring group. “She also knows how to listen.”

To listen is to care. Hilton feels very passionately about unlocking the imaginations of black youth, enabling their dreams. Too often, she feels, black children and teens who need help are ignored or overlooked.

“This is what bothers me about society … how we write people off and leave them to fend for themselves … especially kids,” says Hilton. “No one’s listening. That frustrates me.”

Avery Buchholz, Hilton’s fiancé, says that his future wife stands apart from others because of her compassion and drive to educate the underserved. Yet when he first met Hilton, he says, he was initially struck by her beauty and smarts.

“Medical knowledge seems to come much easier for her than most people and that includes myself,” says Buchholz, a neurosurgery resident at MUSC. “She can rattle off acid base equations and physiologic mechanisms that I have long since forgotten.”

Over time, his appreciation of Hilton deepened considerably.

“Now that I know her better, I can say without a doubt she is the most caring person I know. She literally cares about everybody – sometimes to a fault. She develops bonds with patients and their families, who routinely send thank-you letters to our house showing appreciation for the compassion she showed,” he says.

Buchholz has also observed her sensitivity to injustice and passion for equality.

“Ebony feels that she has been blessed to achieve the things she has, and she wants to make sure others who are just as unfortunate as she was have an opportunity to achieve the same,” says Buchholz.

Though Hilton makes it seem effortless to excel in the field of medicine, the truth is she’s worked hard for her accomplishments. It’s not easy to triple major and graduate at the top of your class. It’s not easy to slog through medical school and then residency, to finally become a doctor and work punishing hours, staring illness and death in the face daily. Yet Hilton mentions none of it when talking about her personal journey. In her mind, only one thing is relevant to her becoming a doctor: the confidence expressed in her by her mother, father and sisters.

And so Hilton carries forward that example, standing before young girls and telling them that they, too, can become doctors, or anything else they want to be.

“They’re worth it,” Hilton says of her young audience. “It’s our duty to start investing in each other again.”