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Nip, Tuck ‘n’ Talk: Up-from-Poverty Plastic Surgeon

One-on-One Chats with Plastic Surgery Notables

Q&A: Up-from-Poverty Plastic Surgeon

CosmeticSurgery.Com brings you another one-on-one interview with notables in the global village of plastic surgery.

Dr. Knight, M.D.
From his childhood in Jamaica where he was born, Plastic Surgeon Mark Knight, M.D., F.A.C.S. well knows the bitter taste of abject poverty and a life where shoeless 13-year-olds go into the workforce for life to do menial jobs. Young Knight eventually came to the U.S., and worked his way through college as a garbage collector where he got by sleeping once every two days. But now, 15 year later, Dr. Knight just retired as Lt. Commander Knight, a general surgeon in the U.S. Naval and Marine Corps, is a first-time father and operates a plastic surgery clinic in Newport Beach, California.

Q: When did you first know you wanted to be a doctor?

A: I went to work one day with my mother Ina who worked as a secretary to a physician in Jamaica. Long story short, I got into everything and spent the entire day playing with every piece of medical gear I could get my hands on.

Q: Didn't you get a spanking?

A: My mother was extremely embarrassed and offered to reclean everything. But the doctor, an English woman, took two hours from her busy schedule and showed me how each and every piece of equipment worked. I've often wondered what would have happened to me if that doctor scolded me and insisted on punishment. Anyhow, from then on, I knew I would become a doctor. From that time on, I told anybody who asked I was going to be a doctor. And they often laughed in my face and ridiculed me. Imagine! A poor, shoeless country boy becoming a doctor!

Q: Then how did that barefooted country boy from Portland, Jamaica, get into the oldest and most prestigious medical school in the U.S., become a Naval officer and open an Orange County, California, plastic surgery practice?

A: In Jamaica, boys and girls don't automatically go on to high school after the 8th grade. One must take an expensive exam and be accepted into a high school, very much like the U.S. system used at the more established universities here to screen and admit people into law and medical schools.

Q: Did you pass?

A: With flying colors. But at the start, there was no money for the exam fee. My seventh grade math teacher, a Miss P. Williams, understood that I was well attuned to listening and learning and thought I had some ability. She tutored me for many weeks and then paid the exam fee from her own pocket. Not only was I admitted, I won a scholarship to Ferncourt High School in 1980. My only other recourse had I not gone to high school, was to join most of my young friends who were leading a life of crime on the streets of big cities in Jamaica.

Q: Did you finish high school?

A: No. That same year, widespread political violence swept over the island with sometimes fatal consequences. My parents had divorced by then so my father and I left Jamaica because he belonged to an opposition party when its political foe came into power. The basic rift was between two factions, one of whom supported socialism and had ties to Cuba while the other promoted capitalism and had ties to the U.S. For instance, the opposition once tear-gassed my high school because that district always voted against the party in power. Anyhow, it became a situation in which my family would not be safe in Jamaica.

Q: Most teen boys can only listen to their favorite music. How did you become so attuned to listening and learning?

A: My two brothers and I had very few possessions. But we lived on the banks of the Rio Grande River in the shadow of the great Blue Mountains in Jamaica, a place where many vacationers come to river raft. One of my first jobs was selling kites and then local food to tourists. But I learned early that you learn more in nature by listening. When I got to school, it was clear to me that a teacher can only coach and encourage - it's up to you to do the learning. The other good piece of advice came from an uncle who told me over and over never let anybody decide what you are worth - only you can direct your own life. He told me if people laugh at your dream, they only reveal their own ignorance.

Q:Where did you go when you left Jamaica?

A: New York City. During the day, I went to Midwood High School in Brooklyn and won most of the honors they offer. My father, who worked as an accountant/bookkeeper in Jamaica, became a skycap and got me a job at La Guardia too, even though I was essentially an illegal alien with no social security number. My job was to stand at the exit and match baggage with claim tickets of the travelers leaving the terminal. I lived in Midwood, Flatbush, Amboy, Roosevelt, Westbury and Stony Brook. The roughest were Amboy and Flatbush.

Q: Did you have a strong Island accent that caused you any grief?

A: My accent was quite noticeable as a child. But in New York, everyone had an accent. My advantage was being able to speak proper English but I could never lose that melodic lilt of my native dialect which becomes more pronounced when I am excited, angry or speaking fast.

Q: Did you manage to stay out of trouble?

A: In Jamaica, I was busted for breaking and entering a grade school to vandalize it. I was released to my parents after hours of interrogation.

Q: What happened after high school?

A: I applied to one college -- State University of New York at Stony Brook to study biochemistry, molecular biology and genetic engineering. I spent two years getting about $8000 worth of computer and microscopic equipment I would need to do my own research projects. But I ran into a major road block in April, 1987.

Q: What kind?

A: A fire totally destroyed our apartment and all my equipment. My father went to live in a welfare hotel while I took my dream and a bogus social security card to apply at Stony Brook. I was admitted due to the persistence of one man and, two years later, won The Ford Foundation Prize in Biochemistry and ten other honors.

Q: How did you afford it all?

A: I was a garbage man. And then I supervised garbage men. I worked nights collecting garbage from the dorms. After a while, I managed a staff of 18 other student/garbage men, a humbling but enlightening experience. I did a little tutoring on campus and some graphics work off campus so people assumed I studied all the time. But the truth was, the only way I could keep up with the garbage job and school and still graduate on time was to sleep once every two days. I graduated in 1992 from Stony Brook with a double major in biochemistry and honors in chemistry. I later learned I was the first person to hold that double major.

Q: Did you get into any more trouble in New York?

A: In college, I walked both sides of the fence for a while. I ran with a tough crowd, guys who I knew were drug dealers. College was funny that way. Some of these kids were 'weekend warriors' who did some major crimes on weekends. During my last two years of college, I carried a concealed weapon most of the time, partly because of the people I hung out with. It was tough to walk the streets and not be "real" so I got a lot of ribbing - being called "college boy," "sellout," "Uncle Tom" and even "Coconut," which mean white on the inside, brown on the outside. But four of my friends were killed during my first summer in college. That was a wake up call and I decided to walk away from that life for good.

But I make no excuses for my past misdeeds. They are mine, as much a part of me as the celebrated academic accolades and attestations. In my mind, it is because of that background that my accomplishments are that much more remarkable.

Q: Where did medical school enter the picture and how did you afford it?

A: I was admitted to University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, which was the very first medical school in the U.S. I had $38 to my name on the first day of classes so I took as many loans as I could and worked as the personal assistant to the handicapped son of a prominent attorney. Long story short, I worked my way through and graduated on time with honors in ten fields of medicine including general surgery and plastic surgery. As you might guess, I became very interested in surgery.

Q: You must have been proud as a peacock to come all that way from such humble beginnings.

A: Yes, people are amazed by the accomplishment but the thing that sticks in my mind is I could have done so much more had I not been distracted by the menial jobs that paid my way through. The other thing that sticks in my mind: I was surrounded by students who came from second, third and fourth generation physician families. But the most impressive people I met were not those who had been handed carte blanche by privileged families but those who had started in very ordinary situations and had traveled a long, difficult road to get where they are.

Q: And the internship years? Where were those spent?

A: I interned at University of California, San Francisco, and, in 2000, did a general surgery residency at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. I was part of the surgical team on 9-11 and saw things when the World Trade Centers collapsed I will never forget. I've been to Ground Zero and, knowing anatomy and the force of the falling buildings, realize that the very dust that flowed away from the twin towers contained the ground up remains of the people who died.

Q: How did you become Lt. Commander Knight, a naval officer?

A: I've had such great opportunity in the United States. Had I stayed in Jamaica, my life would have been much, much different. So, to serve my new country, I joined the reserves in 2000 and even volunteered for Iraq. But they would not send me, due to my training. Had I been killed, it would have taken three people to replace me. But there are too few plastic surgeons in the military as it is. Young people in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan are putting their lives on the line and not only loose arms and legs; they also lose homes, spouses and their health. I have the utmost respect for them and support them in every possible way.

Q: You just became a first-time father so we assume there is a special woman in your life. Can you tell us about her?

A: Jett stuck with me through six years of the learning torture one goes through in general and plastic surgery. We got married last year in Jamaica with me in my military uniform. Although I had not been back in 18 years, very little had changed.

I had hoped one of the most honored guests at the wedding would be Dr. Carmen Bowen-Wright, M.D., the physician who took time from her busy schedule and showed me many, many years ago how basic medical instruments work. But there was a hurricane on the same day and she could not make it.

Q: Imagine, a hurricane trying to wreck your plans. Did it slow you down?

A: After what I’ve been through? Not at all!

Thank you, doctor.

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