Follow a Path to Greatness

Dr. Lesco Rogers, M.D., was a member of the Lehman Class of 1984 and the Lehman Scholars Program. He went on to graduate from Dartmouth College Medical School in 1990 and is a pain management physician at Duke University Medical Center. This event was recorded on May 26, 2010 when Dr. Rogers delivered the keynote address at Lehman’s Honors Convocation.

18 Minutes 40 Seconds

Follow a Path to Greatness

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This is Karl Watson, Senior College Lab Technician in the Department of Music, at Lehman College.

Dr. Lesco Rogers, M.D., was a member of the Lehman Class of 1984 and the Lehman Scholars Program. He went on to graduate from Dartmouth College Medical School in 1990 and is a pain management physician at Duke University Medical Center. This event was recorded on May 26, 2010 when Dr. Rogers delivered the keynote address at Lehman’s Honors Convocation.



So let me start with distinguished faculty, honored guests, and graduates. I’m really privileged to be with you today in celebrating this honor’s convocation. I anticipate that the range of emotions that each of you may feel today may vary from joy to relief, with a touch of anxiety. To be candid, I never graduated from Lehman.

I departed early to attend Dartmouth Medical School. So today is as much a celebration for you as it is for me. When Professor Schwartz first contacted me by e-mail late one evening with a request to address you, my immediate thoughts were, “He must be kidding.” (LAUGHTER) I thought I must extract as much detail as possible prior to committing to anything. But in the same instant when I had that thought, my finger slipped across the keyboard and typed, “Yes.” I felt ambushed.

In the weeks prior to this ceremony, I thought hard, “What could I possibly share with all of you on this special day?” I even bought a few books on public speaking, turned to the sections on graduation. Opening paragraph. Rule number one: Do not speak about yourself. It’s their day. I believe my experiences of relevance in this setting, so I’ll follow the standard medical dictum.


Deviations from the standard of care are acceptable as long as supporting documentation is provided. So what I’ll do, I’ll review three important periods of my life, beginning when I started Lehman to the present time. I have to share with you salient life experiences and conclude how we are connected, despite the time divide and my career evolution. I call these chapters “Intellectual Curiosity 101,” “Finding What You Love,” and “Mentor-Innovator Relationships.”

Intellectual Curiosity 101. It’s been decades since I’ve been back on this campus. Preparing this speech has allowed me to reflect how special a place this is. I’d arrived from England with my sister six months prior to starting at Lehman. I enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High for several months to pass the time. I was so grateful that summer I received an honor high school diploma. I didn’t know such a thing existed.

I began exploring colleges. The first time I saw Lehman campus I was in awe. This was a serious place, with a hustle and bustle of students rushin’ to classes and professors providing curbside advice, as we say in medicine. The gothic architecture and aesthetic order of the campus layout was reminiscent of British institutions of higher education.


Despite being thousands of miles from home, I’d found a warm substitute. This would be home away from home for the next several years. My time at Lehman was marvelous. I quickly established friendships with a group of individuals who were also premed. We were competitive, but completely committed to succeeding as a group. I spent my freshman year taking classes that satisfied some of the basic premed requirements. I was on track.

During my sophomore year I was accepted into Lehman Scholars Program. The level of course intensity ramped up rapidly. Concurrently, I ran into the premed slayer: organic chemistry. Until the L.S.P. courses, I’d been cruisin’ along in the residual benefits of a solid U.K. education. My future medical school roommate would come to refer to this level of intellectual output as the BIM, otherwise known as the bare irreducible minimum. This was mid-curve cruising, the possibility of moving up at a whim.

The L.S.P. course offerings and tutorial style were very much in line with the British educational system, and thus had a familiar feel. These courses were not designed for creature comforts. “Basket Weaving 101” they were not. I began to suspect the primary mission of the courses were to force the envelope of individual intellectual exploration while creating the inertia to shift one out of the desired comfort zone. Exploration seemed to be the rule of the day.


As I settled into my junior year during the limited periods of leisure I became quite skilled at charming the opposite sex. The Brit accent continued to have utility. I once bet a classmate I could convince 30 women on campus to each buy me a scarf. (LAUGHTER) It seemed like a good idea at the time, until I started the time-limited task.

I must have mimicked every regional British accent. At times I suggested I was a victim of circumstances and alas, as a last resort, I begged to fill the collection bag. Thirty scarves were donated to Goodwill and I ate my prize, a thick steak, at my classmate’s expense. (LAUGHTER) The undergraduate years passed quickly and soon I was applying to medical school without a clue where I wanted to attend. I decided I would only submit applications to a few schools.

My first interview letter arrived from Dartmouth. The school seemed unfamiliar. I had accidentally checked the wrong box. After reviewing where Dartmouth was located on a map, I decided I would decline the interview. Fortunately, while attempting to call from the premed office, Professor Dougherty, premed advisor at the time, hung up the phone and insisted I go to the interview. “We’ll talk when you get back,” he insisted in a stern tone.


I arrived at Dartmouth one February evening. I stepped off the Greyhound bus feeling vindicated. My original thoughts to cancel seemed correct. It was cold, snowing, and dark. I knew this was a bad choice. I interviewed the following day. The structure of interrogation was going quite smoothly. I was asked the question that every prospective candidate had prepared for, except me: “So what are your plans if you don’t get into medical school?”

My response was, “Uh?” (LAUGHTER) The question was repeated, but I was obviously dazed. The interviewer seemed puzzled. “Everyone has an answer to that question,” he grunted. I pulled myself together and finally gave the standard required response: “I’d go to grad school.” I received an acceptance letter from Dartmouth several weeks later. Everyone was delighted at the Ivy League acceptance but me.

With maternal prodding and the supporting cast consisting of Professor Dougherty and Dr. Henry Spotnitz, a Columbia Presbyterian surgeon, I relented and accepted the offer. In retrospect, I was almost a victim of the erratic behavior associated with an evolving prefrontal cortex, a core region of decision making that requires time to mature. Those of you with children, younger family members, or friends are probably familiar with this type of “act first, ask later” decision process.


Finding What You Love. Dartmouth was an interesting place. Voted one of the most beautiful college campuses in the U.S. But for all the beauty, it lacked the cultural diversity I had taken for granted at Lehman. Let me put it bluntly: I was experiencing culture shock. At Lehman I was just another member of the multicultural environment. At Dartmouth, I became a member of the minority group, an administrative term with obvious negative connotations.

One memorable experience consisted of a classmate telling a racial joke in my presence. Upon becoming aware of my proximity, he chimed, “Of course it’s not directed to you.” The same accent that had provided a means for social engagement in college now seemed to facilitate a cloak of ethic invisibility.

Despite these shortcomings, Dartmouth had many redeeming qualities. The professors were academically gifted, warm, and engaging. My class seemed to be an assembly of the best and brightest. Most of us began to accept our new anticipated position as a result of academic restratification. After all, there could only be one at the top of the class. Medical school, like college, was a blur. I was fortunate to find a research mentor who shaped my interests.


I had planned first to do a residency in internal medicine, anesthesia, followed by a pain management fellowship. The goal was to become a well-rounded pain doc. And after a sobering internship, less was probably better. At the conclusion of my internship I decided to take a year off and work in a free clinic. This led to being recruited by Phoenix House in Manhattan, at the time, one of the largest drug rehabilitation facilities in the U.S. I was employed as an internist with only one year of training, just like the old days.

It was a challenging role. I acquired on the job diagnostic and therapeutic skills that were usually developed in a structured three-year residency program. On a daily basis, I was forced to match wits with clients who outclassed me in their knowledge of human behavior and playing chess. I learned the little tricks, such as if a client demanded they were sick and needed bed rest, give ’em a few extra days and suspend smoking to expedite recovery. The end result was a cure for many maladies: no one showed up. I believe it was Clint Eastwood who said a man’s got to know his limitations. I thought to myself it was time to return to formal training.

At Phoenix House, I saw firsthand the ravages of crack and other addictions. This was a democratic treatment program. The wealthy, middle class, and poor were all afflicted to the same degree. My primary role was to address medical problems while passively serving as a source of inspiration. The hope was my presence would refute the naysayer client who felt race was too much of an impediment to attempt climbing the ladder of success.


The experience of Phoenix House was great. I was doing what I loved and getting paid. I returned back to residency to complete anesthesia training, with a substantial pay cut and subsequently completed a pain fellowship. I worked in a private practice setting. Life was okay, but boring.

Innovation. After several years in private practice, I decided that I wanted– needed to design medical devices. I had been a consultant to a medical device company, and they suggested Duke as the ideal setting. During the transition between private practice to academia, I created a non-invasive medical device concept essentially on the back of a napkin. Sent soliciting e-mails to several companies and Siemens Corporation responded. They eventually paid for a patent and discussions began to fund the startup in California. I had just started Duke.

This was an incredible turn of events from private practice to academia to Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, the requirements for relocation and other issues suggested the opportunity was less than my ideal. The course of events, though, sparked a process of more consistent designing across many fields of medicine. I was developing a talent, but without direction.


A senior member of the Duke faculty introduced me to my current mentor, the most innovative thinker I know. He was a graduate of Duke Law, a former CEO and chairman of Wachovia Bank, and developer of medical technologies, Lanty Smith. He asked that I bring a portfolio of my designs, and over dinner he reviewed them. As he glanced at the designs, he said, “Bright, but undisciplined.” We met again to discuss my designs and we decided to form a company. We called the company Scion Medical. It was to reflect new technologies that would reduce the cost of health care hopefully in the future.

My relationship with Lanty has been dictated by several guiding principles. Do what you say you’ll do. Underpromise and overdeliver. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Details, details, details; let it sit; then extract more details. The early days were exacting. He was a task master with attention to detail on par with the Hubble Telescope. I’d always left the details to others while I focused on the big picture. That was easiest for me, and my forte. He insisted on both.

The intense push and workload he extracted made me feel like I would crack. Each solution to a technical problem would lead to the insistence, “There must be more.” He repeated this process skillfully and deliberately over the next 12 months, until I noticed a change. The student now was evolving into the teacher. I was learning the process of innovation and the ability to solve problems.


Today, if you sit here in anticipation of the well-deserved degrees earned and a promise of a bright future that many may feel seems uncertain, in this country, historically financial crisis has led to innovative thinking. Innovation arises from the ashes of economic destruction to provide direction, hope, and prosperity. You and I are linked by our Lehman educational DNA. This has instilled independent thought and the process of innovation in all of us.

This non-obvious educational benefit is subtle; but like gene transfer, the presence of a gene does not guarantee expression. The correct environmental consolations are necessary for the desired outcome. We are now in challenging times. Environmental conditions are ripe for the Lehman graduate to express the innovative process they possess.

You have all been prepared to follow a path to greatness. This will be punctuated with episodic failures, which will be a necessary component of your future growth. That being said, all innovators are faced by detractor who want to maintain the status quo. Change when necessary is not readily welcomed. Some of the greatest innovations in history were rejected without consideration because they challenged the status quo.


In preparation for your future as key opinion leaders, let me provide you with phrases to watch out for. “That’s stupid. That will never work. It’s been done and failed. Who cares? Solved in 1920. A solution looking for a problem. Too expensive. Budget buster. How can it pay for itself?” For the path each of you will follow there are not guaranteed methodologies for success. Follow your instincts. Do what you love. And remember, in life there is no dress rehearsal.

On a final note, let me leave you with a few words by Niccolo Machiavelli. “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, for the reformer has enemies in all of those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.” Congratulations, Class of 2010 (APPLAUSE).



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