Reid Sheftall ‘78 is unlike any other doctor you’ve met. In fact, he’s probably unlike any other person you’ve met. That is, unless you know other MIT physics majors who taught at the University of Southern California at age 21, earned money counting cards at Las Vegas blackjack tables before med school, perform surgery on burn victims at a Cambodian medical center, and, in their spare time, play professional golf.
His story may sound like the stuff of a far-fetched novel. But when he wrote his self-published 2007 autobiography Striking It Rich: Golf in the Kingdom with Generals, Patients and Pros, the facts–which he says he altered only slightly to maintain narrative continuity and protect the innocent–gave him plenty of material to work with.
The physics chapter of Sheftall’s career began at MIT, shortly after he arrived in the fall of 1975 as a sophomore. (He first heard of the Institute as a freshman at Duke and knew immediately that he belonged in Cambridge.) Although he’d taken no physics or calculus in high school, MIT’s core classes in physics so intrigued him that he chose the subject as his major. He considered grad school but wasn’t sure he was destined for a life in physics. So he accepted a USC professor’s offer to work in his lab and became a part-time instructor at the university. Teaching Electricity and Magnetism to engineering students, Sheftall quickly realized that he didn’t enjoy lecturing. “To be honest,” he says, “I didn’t think I was smart enough to make any significant contributions in physics.”
As he was rethinking his career, a fellow MIT physics major told him about Beat the Dealer, by MIT professor Edward Thorp. Using Thorp’s technique, Sheftall began playing blackjack whenever he needed extra cash. But he found the casino lifestyle tiring and disturbingly addictive; he says hasn’t counted cards in a decade or so.
Having scratched physics and professional gambling off his list, Sheftall went back to Boston, where he took pre-med courses. In 1983, he returned to his home state to enter medical school at the University of South Florida. After earning an MD in general surgery, he did an internship in Santa Barbara, CA, and then a fellowship in 1989 at Shriners Hospital for Children in Los Angeles, where he trained in pediatric burn surgery. Treating badly burned children, especially those who had disfiguring scars long after the burns had healed, proved incredibly rewarding. He told himself that one day he’d start a charity to help heal permanently scarred children whose families didn’t have the means for reconstructive surgery.
After finishing his residency in Cleveland in 1994, Sheftall narrowed his job offers to two. In Orange County, CA, he could work amidst a wealth of surgical staffers at a state-of-the-art facility. Or he could go to Wiggins, MS (population 3,500), which was reopening its defunct county hospital and could afford only one surgeon on staff. He chose Wiggins. In five years there, Sheftall did everything from repairing hernias to putting a little girl’s legs back together after a lawn mower accident. He estimates that he performed about 1,000 operations in Wiggins before severe back and shoulder pain made bending over an operating table for even 30 seconds impossible.