Skip to main content

Myers delivers annual lecture inspired by Watkins’ legacy

Oct. 22, 2015, 10:50 AM

Woodrow Myers, M.D., MBA, CEO of Corizon Health, delivers the 14th annual Levi Watkins Jr. M.D. Lecture. (photo by Anne Rayner)

One year ago when he accepted the invitation to deliver the keynote address at the 14th annual Levi Watkins Jr., M.D. Lecture, Woodrow Myers, M.D., MBA, chief executive officer of Corizon Health, set out to accomplish two things — reunite with Watkins, one of his first mentors in medicine, and deliver a message to a very specific group in the audience.

With the unexpected death of Watkins earlier this year, Myers was further inspired to continue the legacy established by Watkins, the first African-American student to enter and graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

His presentation — “Our Response to Injustice: Opportunistic? Obligatory? Or Optional?” — was intended to light a fire under those in attendance who were age 40 and younger, he said. Using snapshots of his own career, he stressed the importance of seeing difficulties as opportunities.

“My goal here is to talk to the folks who have a whole lot of career left, because you are going to get a chance to make a lot of important decisions about what you do with your time, what you do with your life and what you do with your careers,” Myers said. “That is what I really want you to be thinking about today because that’s what Levi helped me think about when I met him.”

Myers recounted several situations in his life that caused angst and strife and prompted him to reflect on Watkins’ life and how the pioneer forever changed the future for minorities in medicine.

Myers said he wanted to continue the legacy of mentoring the next generation of physicians.

In 1976, after completing a fellowship in critical care and health care policy fellowship and earning an MBA at Stanford, Myers inquired about a job at Stanford University Medical Center. He was turned down.

“I look back on that and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it took me out of my comfort zone,” Myers said. “Even though they trained me, they passed me and they got me through the boards, they didn’t want me. I didn’t let it get me down.”

Instead, he wrote to all the hospitals within a 50-mile radius seeking employment. Within one day he was asked to join the staff at the University of California at San Francisco, “the only institution in the Bay Area thought to be better than Stanford. And to think, I almost didn’t send that letter,” Myers said.

He went on to hold positions as the U.S. Senate Physician Advisor to U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and later served as the health commissioner of both Indiana and New York City. Jobs in corporate America followed.

Myers urged the audience to translate potential failures into successes.

“You have to know where you have the optimal opportunity to provide the kind of leadership that you want,” he said. “Do something important. Don’t do things that are boring. Don’t do things that are easy.

“Do things that are tough and that are going to make you hurt and cry,” said Myers. “Do things that are going to get you somewhere so that you can change the world.”

The message echoed the legacy of Watkins, who was the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a human patient.

“Levi was devoted to serving others, his profession, his family and his friends,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “All of us whom he championed with advice, care, love and wisdom are his heirs. We will never forget his example.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Office for Diversity Affairs and hosted by David Patterson, M.D., (VUSM ‘85). Patterson, a physician in Washington, D.C., serves on the Board of Trust for Vanderbilt University as well as the newly formed Medical Center Board.

Prior to the start of the lecture, several awards were presented, including the Faculty Award, given to William Schaffner, M.D., professor of Preventive Medicine, for fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities. The student awards went to VUSM student Chike Abana and graduate student Adrian Cadar for their work in fostering a more diverse learning environment. House Officer awards were given to Rachel Ruiz, M.D., and Tiara Aldridge, M.D.

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice