Wade Spees // The Post and Courier
Dr. DeAnna Ellington Cheek helps oversee the Fresenius Medical Care dialysis clinic that opened in March in Mount Pleasant.
At 63, Dr. DeAnna Ellington Cheek has fond memories of those who have had a positive impact on her life, recalling with ease the names of schoolteachers such as Naomi C. Williams and Sarah Oglesby.
The educators, along with her mother, Ermine Ellington, are the ones Cheek credits with allowing her to believe that if she worked hard, she could achieve all that she wanted out of life.
That belief eventually would lead her to become a local nephrologist with her own practice, Palmetto Kidney and Hypertension, in Charleston.
The encouraging words of her teachers pushed aside any seeds of doubt that she could achieve greatness -- seeds largely planted by a segregated Charleston.
"The perception was because you were a person of color, you were inferior," Cheek said. "A lot of the really dedicated teachers from that era wanted you to believe that you were just as good as everyone else and that you could be successful."
Cheek's former teachers were hard on their students, but in a warm way, as though the youths in their classrooms were their own children.
"They demanded excellence. All of these people demanded the best and the most from you. I think those were similarities that they all had," Cheek said. "They were tough teachers, but they really wanted you to learn. It wasn't about a paycheck or anything. They were just dedicated to teaching their children."
Cheek said she wanted to be an astronomer when she was in the fifth grade, but when she turned 12, the idea of studying medicine entered her mind.
"When I went to see the pediatrician, my mom would always take me to see white doctors, but you went on a separate day or you entered through the back door and you didn't share the same waiting room," Cheek said.
"When you got to be 12, you went to the adult doctor, but I told my mom, 'I'm not going to any male doctor and taking off my clothes.' So she took me to see her doctor, Catherine McCottry. She was the first African-American I saw who was a physician. And when I saw her, I became interested in becoming a doctor," Cheek said.
Cheek said she was a sophomore or junior at Burke when the peninsular high school integrated. After graduating, she left Charleston to attend Michigan State University to study pre-med.
Cheek never doubted that she would attend college. Her mother's emphasis on education made sure of that.
Like the educators at Simonton Junior High and Burke High who Cheek is so fond of, her mother also dedicated her life to teaching.
Ellington started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Ravenel, and by the mid-1970s, E.B. Ellington Elementary School was named for her.
"She just always felt that you could do anything if you had a good education. In my house, I always had to read. She just always wanted you to do well in school," Cheek said. "School was a priority. That was your job, and you were expected to do your best. She was very organized, probably more so than I am. And very disciplined, because in school you need to be disciplined and have good study habits."
It was 1966, toward the end of her freshman year at Michigan State, when she met Allen Cheek, whom she eventually would marry.
"She just happened to be riding in the car with her roommate, who was going to a dance at the school with my roommate," Allen Cheek said.
Allen, who was two years older, and Cheek went on a few dates before seeing each other more seriously in the fall of the next school year.
"I used to tease her sometimes, telling her that she was the girl I was going to marry, but she didn't believe me at the time," he said.
Back to the dream
Though Cheek started out pre-med at Michigan State, after graduating, she ended up following in her mother's footsteps by becoming an elementary school science teacher.
"I was realistic. I knew I wasn't going to get into medical school, and I needed to work," Cheek said.
But Cheek couldn't shake the desire to go back to school, especially since McCottry continued to remain a presence in her life.
"She always kept up with me. She kept asking when I was going to go back. And when I got married, she would joke, 'Well, that's it now, you're never going to do it,' " Cheek said. "She was just really happy when I finished medical school, and she came to my graduation."
With McCottry's prodding, Cheek enrolled at Wayne State University in Michigan to finish up last-minute courses and a second degree in biology before attending medical school.
Though medical school was challenging enough, Cheek endured the added challenges of being a wife and mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Candace.
"The average person (student) was probably 22 to 23, but I was 27," Cheek said. "Obviously, it was more challenging to have a child while going through medical school, but I had a great family who made a lot of sacrifices. My husband was a teacher, so he had great hours, and my mom even moved to Michigan for a while to help with my daughter."
After finishing medical school, Cheek completed an additional six years of training at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan, one year of which was spent as its first African-American female chief resident.
"There was always that concern that you weren't as good as everyone else, more so as good as the guys," Cheek said. "I guess sometimes during my era people always looked at you as trying to get in because of affirmative action. So there were challenges that came with that, but during that time when I was selected to be chief resident, I had a wonderful chairman of medicine who was there to guide me and insisted that there was a need for me to pave the way for the people that came behind me."
Return to Charleston
Midway through her nephrology fellowship, Cheek gave birth to her second daughter, Kristin. And not long after completing her studies, Cheek's mother became ill.
"I'm an only child, so when that happened, I decided to move back to Charleston to look after my mom," she said.
Cheek's mother died in 1988, followed by the death of her father, Julian Ellington, in 1990.
In her return to Charleston, Cheek would work at the Medical University of South Carolina for 15 years before starting her private practice.
Her husband, by then retired, would help her by becoming the office manager.
"I figured that instead of her having to hunt to find someone else, I would just volunteer to do it," Allen Cheek said. "She's probably only in the office a few times during the week because she's out at hospitals and visiting other clinics, but we get a chance to communicate. It's a pretty workable relationship. We've been jelling together for 42 years."
Allen Cheek said that he's glad that with his help, Cheek was able to follow her dreams.
"It was challenging at times, but she got a chance to accomplish what she wanted to do, and I have no problems with that. I wanted to be a schoolteacher, and I got to do what I wanted to do, so I'm glad she got to do what she wanted to do, too," he said.
Looking to the future
Cheek works every day, and by the time she's done with paperwork and completing rounds at her own practice, nearby hospitals and dialysis clinics, it's usually 9 or 10 p.m.
Though she is getting older, she has no desire to retire anytime soon.
"I enjoy working, and as long as I'm healthy, that keeps my brain working," Cheek said. "I plan to hopefully work smarter and not as much, and I'm hoping to build this practice up to where I can hire a partner who can hopefully take it on."
Cheek's relationship with her patients is one of the things she is most proud of.
"They're like my family, particularly my dialysis patients. They have to go somewhere (to a dialysis clinic) three times a week, so I would see them all the time; sometimes as much as I would see my own family," she said.
Cheek said her desire isn't to make billions of dollars, or for her practice to have hundreds of patients. She's happy as long as she's having a positive impact on the lives of her patients.
"With nephrology, you can't fix everything all of the time, but you can see a better way of life in a lot of the patients," Cheek said. "There's nothing better than seeing a patient that's been on dialysis get a transplant and return to their normal lifestyle. I celebrate with every patient that I have.
"I always tell my patients that dialysis is not a disability, it's an inconvenience. I try to help them believe that. It's all mind over matter, and working towards that goal of participating in things and doing things. You still can function. You still can be very involved," Cheek said.