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Donald G. Skinner

USC-Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital

Since arriving at USC in 1980 following a nine-year stint at UCLA, Dr. Donald G. Skinner has helped restore a sense of dignity and comfort to patients who have had their bladders removed due to cancer.

Formerly, patients in such straits had to deal with a complex system that allowed urine to flow through a piece of small intestine and drain outside of the body through the abdominal wall and into a pouch.

Then, in 1980, Swedish researcher Nils Kock devised a way of mimicking the functions of a bladder by fastening a portion of the small intestine to the abdominal wall, forming a sack in which urine collects. The patient can then drain the sack every four to six hours with a catheter. Skinner, who is a professor and chairman of the urology department at USC, made patients’ lives much simpler by devising a means of connecting the sack to the urethra, allowing patients to eliminate urine using their own muscular contractions.

“For the longest time, people had accepted the way of doing things, and Skinner said, ‘There has to be a better way,’ ” said Gary Lieskovsky, a colleague at USC.

Skinner, who did not return calls for comment, has also worked in the field of prostate cancer, establishing genetic markers that can be pinpointed in blood tests to determine whether patients are at risk for cancer. For those patients determined to be at risk, the markers can be further used to help pinpoint their chances of survival and whether they should be given chemotherapy.

“He’s helped put prostate cancer on the map and raise awareness issues to note early detection,” said Stephen Ryan, dean of the USC School of Medicine.

Skinner in 1983 was instrumental in forming the Kenneth Norris Jr. Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he is also chief of surgery. He also recruited a team of 10 physicians to build the USC department of urology into a world-renowned clinical and research entity. The comfortable workplace environment Skinner has helped to create is evident in the fact that only one faculty member has left, and that departure was due to a commuting inconvenience.

“We have a very pleasant atmosphere at the workplace where people work well together and can share ideas in a relaxed forum,” said Lieskovsky. “That’s a testimony to the leadership in place.”

The center attracts patients from around the globe, as well as medical students seeking residency. More than 200 students apply each year to fill three residency openings.

Despite 12-hour workdays Monday through Thursday, Skinner manages to squeeze in a round of golf late Friday mornings with Lieskovsky. Skinner, 60, is a member of Riviera Country Club and has a 10 handicap.

“He loves golf with a passion and plays well,” Lieskovsky says. “We try to maintain our composure as we share the ups and downs of the game.”

And, to keep things humming in the operating room, Skinner opts for the clean, classic sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

“He’s a serious person, but he loves the bell ringing and the rousing tempo for inspiration and relaxation,” Lieskovsky says. “It’s as if he’s conducting his own symphony of sorts.”

Nola L. Sarkisian