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Pediatric Urologist with Robotic Surgery Skills Uses Smiles and Laughter to Gauge Success

Kat Hendrix, Ph.D.
August 13, 2021
Austin Hester, M.D.
Dr. Austin Hester

When a child in her care laughs, Austin Hester, MD, Assistant Professor of Urology at MUSC Children's Health, knows that she has really made a difference in their lives. "They wear their emotions on their sleeves, so when I can make a child in the hospital smile, I know I'm really helping them feel better," says Hester, who chose pediatrics because she wanted to work with patients at the beginning of their lives. "There's nothing better than knowing that I helped a sick child recover to lead a long and fruitful life - that I made a long-lasting difference in how their whole lifetime plays out. That's what keeps me motivated and focused."

Hester comes to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) from a fellowship in pediatric urology at Children's National Hospital in Washington, DC. Prior to that, she completed her medical school training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a residency at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Her interest and skill in performing robotic surgeries is what led her to choose the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital from among several options. "MUSC offers me a lot of opportunities to do minimally invasive, robotic surgical repairs in the pediatric population," says Hester. "They were really welcoming and excited to bring on someone who could offer those procedures. They really want to expand in this area, and that's exactly the kind of place I want to be.

She became interested in robotic surgery during medical school, when her father was diagnosed with renal cancer. "He underwent a robotic procedure to remove the tumor," Hester recalls. "I was just amazed that they could do this life-changing thing for my dad - for our whole family - with just a few small incisions and such a minimally invasive technique."

Hester aims to help expand the current robotics program. "It's generally underutilized in pediatrics, and I'd like to help make MUSC a powerhouse in this regard. We have this great, relatively untapped resource that allows us to do many routine procedures with small incisions, minimal scarring, and high success rates," Hester says. While many academic medical centers across the country offer robotic surgeries in children, no other medical center in the region does. There are distinct advantages to doing surgery this way, particularly when working on the very delicate renal tissues in children. "One of the most common things we do is called a pyeloplasty which is a reconstruction of the kidneys' collecting system. With robotics, I can visualize the defect in greater detail. I can get a closer look and really explore the area and, ultimately, correct it with robotics," says Hester.

She believes that children deserve the best care available. "The problems they face are not their fault, they didn't ask for what they're going through, and they can't help themselves. They were just dealt this hand of cards and I'm grateful to be able help fix it for them."

As committed to pediatrics as Hester is today, medicine was not always where she thought she would spend her life. "I grew up wanting to be a librarian. I loved to read and still do. My house is packed with books on history and archeology," Hester says. But an elective course in her junior year of high school sparked a new passion for science. "It was a class in forensics and we read a book about the eradication of smallpox that just blew my mind! The teacher set up a lab for us to do an investigation, and I was so fascinated by that. By the time I went to college I'd decided to be a chemistry major on track for medical school," says Hester.

She also has a secret talent that she could always fall back on. "I make a mean cupcake. So, if this whole medicine thing doesn't work out, I'll open a bakery," she laughs. That's good news for her colleagues, since Hester often bakes on the weekends and brings treats to the clinic on Monday morning. "My big COVID endeavor was cake decorating. I made so many little 4-inch cakes to work on getting really clean, crisp edges and piping little decorations like Christmas trees or autumn leaves changing colors." She has yet to see if robotics could improve her baking outcomes.

Dr. Hester sees patients at the R. Keith Summey Medical Pavilion in North Charleston and the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital in downtown Charleston. If you would like to make an appointment with Hester or refer a patient, please call 843-876-0444.