Chet Hammill, MD, MCR, FACS is hepatobillary pancreas (HPB) surgeon. He specializes in liver, pancreas and biliary diseases, minimally invasive and robotic surgery
Please call 314-273-1809 for an appointment.
What happened in the course of your schooling to influence you to choose your specialty?
My specialty is liver and pancreas surgery. During my training I focused on minimally invasive surgery, and it was only when I began applying for specialized minimally invasive fellowship programs, I discovered that liver and pancreas surgery was a specialty program – because at the time it was new, and the training program was just beginning.
Earlier in my minimally invasive surgical training during my residency at the University of Hawaii, I was interested in doing research. Dr. Linda Wong, a transplant surgeon, was studying the liver and pancreas, she mentored me and I worked with her for many years. As a result, it was then that I first saw the possibility of combining minimally invasive surgery with the liver and pancreas.
I completed my minimally invasive surgical training in Oregon, at Providence Portland Medical Center. I was mentored by Dr. Paul Hansen, and it is really because of my mentors that I fell in love with liver and pancreas as a specialty.
What brought you to Washington University?
I was first approached because a lot of liver and pancreas surgeries are performed here, but not many minimally invasive liver and pancreas surgeries – so Washington University was looking for someone in that sub-specialty.
For me, the impressive liver and pancreas program, as well the opportunities to collaborate with the school of engineering were huge draws. The prospect of being able to help build the minimally invasive liver and pancreas surgery program was hard to resist.
How is the school of engineering involved with what you do?
I was originally an aerospace engineer before I transitioned into medicine. I have a huge interest in developing new technologies and instruments for use in the operating room. Washington University School of Engineering has a very strong biomedical engineering program where they do a lot of research, innovation and entrepreneurship in this area. The chance to collaborate with them was a big draw.
Which aspect of your practice is most interesting?
I think most people go into medicine because they are interested in helping others. Particularly in my field, I see people with very serious problems — there are no easy solutions and there are a lot of difficult decisions to be made. I enjoy guiding my patients through this process, helping them decide if surgery is right for them, or if it should be surgery combined with other treatments.
The technical complexity of the surgeries in my field also attracted me to this specialty.
What new developments in your field are you most excited about?
There was an almost 40-year-period when science made little progress in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. But some of the recently developed treatments, including chemotherapy, have allowed us to get more people into the operating room, and as a result, we are seeing better outcomes in our patients.
In the future, these new treatments will also include immunotherapy and will make a big impact on treating pancreatic cancer — compared to where we were just 10 years ago.
Both liver and pancreatic cancers tend to be rare, however, pancreatic cancer is a little less rare, so there has been more focus and progress on it recently. The advances in diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer, as well as improvements in minimally invasive surgical techniques should translate to progress in treating liver and gall bladder cancer.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Montana, and left to go to college at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. After that I traveled around quite a bit, lived in Hawaii and Oregon until I ended up in St. Louis.
My parents and brother and his family still live in Montana.
What is a must-see stop in Montana?
That’s easy – Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are the two-must see stops in Montana. Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the lower 48 states, and Yellowstone is obviously impressive because of all the geysers.
I grew up near Glacier National Park – in the Rocky Mountains, around animals and out in the wilderness. It was a very isolated and mountainous region — a different childhood than most people probably experience.
My dad was a veterinarian and raised Clydesdales.
So Clydesdales have another purpose besides pulling a beer wagon?!
Apparently they do — we farmed with them and showed them. My dad continues to raise them to this day.
Is there a particular award or achievement that is most gratifying?
The achievement that is most gratifying to me is getting my medical degree. Starting out in aerospace engineering, my original lofty goal was to help people make it to Mars. At some point I realized some of the biggest obstacles were the medical challenges of keeping people alive long enough in space and feeding them on the trip to Mars.
My interest in research and the medical side of sending people to Mars transitioned into my interest in medicine. But when I decided to pursue medicine, all of my education and work experience had been in engineering. I didn’t have any background in biology or biochemistry, which are a must in medicine. So to get into medical school, but also to make it through medical school required an incredible amount of hard work.
I chose medical school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for their MD/PhD program. I entered the program with the plan to get a PhD in aerospace engineering and an MD. I finished a Master’s in aerospace engineering, and at that point, I realized that medicine was really what I loved and decided to pursue medicine without finishing the PhD in aerospace engineering.
My medical degree is the achievement of which I am proudest.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
Almost every medical student or resident gets this advice during training – eat when you can, sleep when you can, and don’t mess with the pancreas. Obviously I didn’t do a great job of following that advice.
It’s an important concept because the pancreas is a very fragile organ and if you mess with it, it can cause big problems. You have to have respect for the pancreas and treat it gently.
If you weren’t a doctor, what would you like to be doing?
If I wasn’t a doctor, I would most likely be an entrepreneur. I enjoy the mechanical aspect of engineering and software programming. I really like developing ideas into new technologies.