Jean Hilaire pushed through the school year and earned a doctorate in pharmacy even after learning in January that his mother and sister had been killed in the earthquake in Haiti.

He was one of about 830 students who graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina's six colleges Friday.

Hilaire also was among 183 students in the first class to graduate from the S.C. College of Pharmacy. In 2004, the pharmacy schools at MUSC and the University of South Carolina merged to form one program.

This past year was the hardest year of his life, Hilaire said. He learned soon after the earthquake that his mother and sister had died and were buried in rubble, he said. He wanted desperately to find their bodies.

He took a break from classes and got onto an MUSC medical missions flight to Haiti with

Dr. Shane Woolfe and his team. He worked as a guide and an interpreter, helping the team as he adjusted to the devastation in his country. He found the bodies of his family members and gave them a proper burial. "It was a miracle," he said.

MUSC President Ray Greenberg helped arrange the trip and the money to pay for it, Hilaire said, and he's grateful.

He plans to work in a long-term care facility in the United States for awhile. But he eventually wants to open a pharmacy in his native country.

Hilaire already seemed to understand the theme of retired Marine Maj. Gen. Clifford L. Stanley's commencement speech.

Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, encouraged students to recognize "the purity of life," which is the importance and value of each individual, as they set off to practice their art.

Stanley's office oversees all military personnel policy and readiness for the 1.4 million active duty personnel, 1.3 million National Guard and Reserve members and 680,000 civilians in the Department of Defense. The graduate of South Carolina State University also is responsible for the entire military health care system and oversight of the $46 billion Defense Health Program.

"Even if you have the degree, the title, the job, you're not better than anyone else," the 33-year Marine Corps veteran said.

It was the final commencement ceremony as dean of the college of medicine for Dr. Jerry Reves. He's retiring after watching more than 1,200 doctors graduate since he started in 2001.

Reves said he was proud of being part of the Hollings Cancer Center earning the National Cancer Institute Designation and of landing the Clinical Translational Science Award from the National Center for Research Resources. Those two triumphs put MUSC in an elite group of medical schools, he said.

And he's proud of boosting diversity in the college, he said. "It makes everybody a better doctor."

Hilaire also had glowing things to say about the university and its faculty, students and community. Everybody was wonderful and supportive during some very dark hours of his life. "I came to this country with nothing in my hand," he said. "Now I have a PharmD in my hand. I'm blessed."

Reach Diane Knich at dknich@postandcourier.com or 937-5491.