Dr. Gail Knight Inspires as First African-American Woman Chief of Staff at Rady Children’s Hospital
Black History Month 2015 Honoree
In Dr. Gail Knight’s office is a wall of photos of patients she has treated. They are mementos of childhood milestones—birthday celebrations, family vacations and graduations. Though she hasn’t treated most of them in years, Knight's pride in them shines through. The pride in knowing that through her work these children are thriving.
Knight, a 2015 Black History Month Local Hero, is the first African American woman to be named chief of staff and clinical director, division of neonatology for Rady’s Children Hospital of San Diego. In her nearly 23 years of practicing medicine she has treated thousands of newborns, providing critical care, including cardiac surgery and heart-lung bypass, at San Diego’s only Level 4 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
“When people say they have never heard of NICU, I say that’s a good thing,” she says. “That means you never have had to experience having a child in the intensive care unit. The thing about being here in a Level 4, a lot of babies don’t end up making it because they are the sickest of the sick.”
Knight knew early on she wanted to be a doctor, describing her keen interest in medical conditions.
“When I think about my childhood, I don’t remember going to Disneyland,” admits Knight. “But I do remember that I had a two-year old cousin that was burned, and walking into the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles when I was six or seven. I can remember her bandages, and I remember wondering what the substance she had on her. I also remember in elementary school, one of my classmates having polio and me trying to understand polio. I was never afraid of him like a lot of the other kids were. There’s no point in my life where I didn’t think I was going to be a doctor.”
Knight recalls how her parents encouraged her curiosity and interests. Her mother, in particular, did all she could to help her daughter reach her goals.
“In the ‘70s, when I was in junior high, everyone had their furniture covered in plastic, and my mother’s dining room chairs were covered in it,” she explains. “I needed something to connect my DNA structure that I was making for the science fair. So my mother let me cut the plastic off our dining room chairs. I stapled the vinyl to my DNA project and got an A.”
Knight’s parents also instilled in her the need to apply herself and work harder as a way to compensate for being African American.
“This was the 1960s and ‘70s and I had parents that were both very involved in Civil Rights and equality, because they had been subjected to many inequalities,” she states. “Yet never was I raised with any bitterness or hatred. My mother would always say to me, ‘You are a child of color and in order for you to achieve your goals, you’re just going to have to be better than the next person. So, where someone else can get away with giving 100 percent, you have to give 110 percent.' And that’s just the way it was.”
Knight earned both her undergraduate diploma and degree in medicine from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where her interest in neonatology developed. This was followed by a residency at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“In medical school, I was absolutely fascinated by the lung development in the fetus,” she says. “When I started doing rotations was when surfactant, a substance used on a premature baby’s lungs to help the baby breathe, first came out. Most of us are born with it, but for premature babies, it hasn’t developed, and so their lungs can’t open up and take oxygen. The first time I saw it given to a baby who weighed about 2.5 pounds, and seeing the baby go from blue to pink, to actually taking a breath on their own, I was in awe and felt this is what I need to be doing. Now surfactant has been around for 30 years, and the knowledge we have today is amazing. For me, neonatology is this field that is forever changing, and the conversation I have with families today is very different than what I used to have 25 years ago. There are more therapies and options for families today. ”
Medical school can be intense, but it was even more so for Knight, who married young, while in school. She and Samuel, her husband of 40 years who is a retired naval officer, have three sons and two grandchildren. When she was only a college freshman, she informally adopted an 11-year old girl. She admits that working on her degrees, with children in tow, had its share of challenges.
“Having kids probably made it more difficult for me, but I wouldn’t be here or doing what I do without them,” Knight says. “I had my first two boys when I was an undergrad at UCSD in the '70s. Luckily, I never listened to people who said to me, you cannot do something. When I got pregnant with my second child, my counselor at UCSD said, ‘You will never go to medical school.’ I will never forget sitting in his office and him saying that to me. I wanted to take an anatomy class and he refused to sign the form. So I figured out another way to get into the class.”
When Knight finally made it into medical school, she remembered the counselor who tried to quash her dreams.
“I never had any anger about it, but I went back to him to let him know that I did make it into medical school at UCSD, and it wasn’t easy, but I wanted him to know that I was fine,” she affirms. “He said he was proud. For me, it wasn’t about proving him wrong. I was like, ‘Okay, you are not someone who’s going to help me or be supportive of me, so I need to find someone who will.’ And that’s the message that I want everybody to know. That there are people out there who care and will support you and you don’t even know who they are. They aren’t necessarily people you know. If you encounter someone that doesn’t encourage you, then you have to go search out somebody who is.”
With her busy work schedule and personal life, Knight is grateful for the small acts of kindness she receives every day.
“At every single point in my life, I always knew that there was somebody whose shoulders I was standing on, somebody who was holding me up, somebody somewhere who was supporting me,” Knight says, her eyes glistening. “My aunt, who’s a nurse, would call and say ‘I was really nice to this medical student today because I am hoping there’s a nurse who’s being nice to you.’ Our housekeeping staff here see me and they say, ‘Dr. Knight, how are you doing?’ Or the people in the cafeteria, or people here who give me hugs. They are just people who are always looking out for you and taking care of you, that you don’t even know sometimes. That’s what gets you through the day, and you have to tell them thank you.”