BY MERRY SUE BAUM
Dorian Wilson first dreamed of becoming a doctor at the age of 5. Today, at age 44, he is one of only a handful of African-American liver transplant surgeons in the country. Yet Wilson is unassuming and gracious. In fact, he refers to himself as a kid from the ghetto who got lucky and was very blessed. "I'll take credit for determination, but the rest was a gift," he says. "Others recognized that I had certain abilities, and they helped me get from the inner city to where I am today." The first of those was Wilson's geometry teacher in his native Jersey City. He recommended Wilson for a national college preparatory program known as A Better Chance, or ABC. "The teacher must have thought I was studious," Wilson says, "but I think I was basically a thug."
Nevertheless, Wilson went off to Winchester High School, a boarding school in Massachusetts, which he says was in a "lily white suburb." Of the 1,300 students, only 13 were minorities. "It was tough," he recalls. "Racism was a major issue. I often got in fights and was even threatened with suspension." Toward the end of the first year, however, things calmed down.
But Wilson had other things to worry about. He had been placed in advanced classes and expectations were high. For example, he was assigned a 1,000-word paper in English class every four to six weeks, but he had never written anything close to that. He was up to the challenge, however. Not only did he graduate near the top of his class, he was accepted to Dartmouth College. His tuition came from scholarships and loans, since things were tight at home. Although both parents worked, there were five Wilson children to raise.
During his years at Dartmouth, Wilson says, life "opened up." As a freshman, he was afraid of failure and felt his inner-city background somehow made him less acceptable. But he became a dorm chairman, which he says thrust him into college life. Before long he was completely immersed in study groups and extracurricular activities. Wilson's inspiration to enter the medical world came from his early experiences in the local emergency room. "I was there once or twice a month getting patched up, from the age of 5 until I was 13," he says. "I had a lot of energy and was always into something." Whether there during the day or at night, Wilson found the doctors and nurses kind and caring, and he wanted to be part of that environment. "I didn't realize, at that age, what it would take," he says. "I just knew I wanted to be a doctor."
Hoping to make his dream a reality years later, Wilson sent his application to UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) during his last year at Dartmouth. He says that his marks in science classes were B's and C's, which proved not good enough. He was rejected. Disappointed, but not about to give up, he enrolled in an externship program in medical technology in Boston. Another Dartmouth graduate ran the program and took a special interest in Wilson, also teaching him all the ins and outs of physical diagnosis.
Feeling more confident, Wilson again applied to NJMS after completing the course. He was admitted in 1978. "I was thrilled," he says. He married in his last year of medical school, but later divorced. After graduating in 1982, he completed an internship and residency in surgery at the school. He loved what he was continued on page 43 doing but had some difficulty getting his "big paws" to do what he wanted them to do. By about the middle of his third year, however, he finally mastered the techniques.
About the same time, Wilson began developing a great interest in immunology. So when Carroll Leevy, MD, director of UMDNJ's Liver Center, asked if he would do a two year fellowship in liver transplantation, then join the University's new transplant team, something clicked. "It suddenly became clear to me that I would do transplants," he says. "That way I could learn immunology while doing what I loved."
Wilson explains that immunology is the study of how the body defends itself against anything foreign that invades it. When an organ is transplanted, the body automatically tries to reject it, since it, too, is foreign. A thorough knowledge of immunology is necessary to maintain a transplanted organ.
The newly graduated physician studied at the University of Pittsburgh, a premier transplant center. It was both the best and worst of times for him. "In one sense they were the worst years of my life," he remembers. "I rarely slept. I was in the hospital 85 percent of the time."
But it was also an exhilarating experience. He worked under Thomas Starzl, MD, a pioneer in liver transplantation and one of the most highly esteemed transplant surgeons in the country. "They were doing 500 to 600 transplants a year, so there was always something to see and learn," he states.
Even more exciting was the realization that with enough determination, he could accomplish almost anything. The newly trained transplant surgeon returned to NJMS, where he worked with the liver transplant team for five years. At that time, he says, they were performing about 30 a year and matching the national success rate - 70 percent of the patients were still alive after one year.
In 1993, Wilson joined the Air Force, something he had thought about doing for a long time. He served for three years, then returned to the medical school. Because there were no vacancies on the transplant team at the time, he worked as an emergency room surgeon at UMDNJ-University Hospital and also as medical director of The Sharing Network, New Jersey's organ and tissue donation service. Part of his role included speaking to community groups. Whenever he spoke at high schools, Wilson says, he would also speak about the importance of education.
"Too many kids in the inner cities are afraid to break through to a better life," he explains. "They're afraid they won't succeed or won't like who they will become. I would tell them, 'You don't have to change who you are. I still wear jeans and listen to rap music. And the best part is, I can go into the hood and talk to the guys there, and then turn around and have a conversation with a professor or another doctor.'"
Wilson has been back on the transplant team since July. He's still a consultant to The Sharing Network and sits on its board of trustees. His average day consists of an early morning meeting with colleagues, then working on papers, seeing patients and teaching classes. He also works out at least twice a week. Often transplant surgery runs as long as 12 hours, so keeping fit is imperative. "If I didn't work out, I would have difficulty performing such long procedures, especially in the middle of the night," he says. "And by keeping fit, I can still function the next day. I'm tired, but completely able to keep up my schedule."
When he's not working, Wilson likes to spend time with his 17-year-old son, Brennis, who will graduate from high school in June, and attend The Savannah College of Art and Design for computer assisted design and sequential art, better known as cartooning. Wilson is an avid photographer and is also writing a book entitled, "Reflections," a collection of monographs about his experiences, as well as some of his photographs.
"I have a very intimate relationship with words," he says. "Words and how we use them have a great impact on people. That's why I feel it's critically important for me to document my story for others who walk the same path."
The surgeon is also active in his church in Somerset and says he would like to sing in the choir but his schedule doesn't permit it. He is engaged and plans to get married this summer.
As for the future, Wilson says he wants to write a second book and plans to "really push" his professional capabilities. "I feel like I'm just scratching the surface," he says. "I don't think I've come even close to optimizing my talents. I want to do that, wherever that may take me." Based on this surgeon's past history, it's likely that could be quite far.