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The Doctor of Second Chances

Reid Sheftall ‘78 helps badly burned children make a new start–and found one himself, on the golf course

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.

With the nearest golf course an hour’s drive from his Phnom Penh clinic, Reid Sheftall ’78 would occasionally drive balls into the Mekong River for practice.

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.

By 2000, Sheftall had given up his hospital job and was performing simple, low-risk procedures in private practice in Wiggins. Out of the blue, a doctor he’d worked with as a resident invited him to a Vietnamese hospital to help train doctors in laparoscopic surgery. On that trip, Sheftall took a chance excursion to Phnom Penh that changed his life. He volunteered at a local hospital there, as he usually does when he travels: “I’m curious, and whenever I go to a new place, I like to learn about how medicine is delivered there,” he says. In that hospital he saw the desperation of the Cambodian doctors, whose ranks had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge, as they struggled to serve more patients than they could handle. “The young doctors hardly had anyone to train them,” he says. “And in 2000, standards of medical care were very low in Cambodia.”

That trip to Phnom Penh led to another and yet another. In January 2002, Sheftall had surgery; his debilitating back pain had finally been diagnosed as a herniated neck disc. Although the operation alleviated the pain, some of his fingers remain permanently numb. Resuming his career as a general surgeon was out of the question.

Plastic surgery, however, was something he could do, as it doesn’t require the tactile sensitivity that general surgery does. Sheftall saw the situation as a chance to specialize in burn reconstruction.

Within a few weeks of his surgery, he was back in Cambodia, volunteering in a friend’s clinic. By then, he’d begun traveling there regularly for his version of vacation (he can get “a little bored” on a typical holiday, he explains). “Instead of going somewhere and playing golf or sitting on a beach,” he says, “I decided to go back to Cambodia twice a year and do burn surgery on kids who would be lined up and waiting for me.” He also served as a coach and mentor to local doctors. “Going somewhere where the people really honest-to-God needed someone to help them learn how to do something was very attractive to me,” he says.

In 2003, Sheftall opened his own clinic, the American Medical Center in Phnom Penh, and moved to Cambodia full time. He soon realized his vision of helping children get “a fair chance in life” by founding an informal charity he calls Operation Kids. So far, he and other doctors employed at his clinic (and a few volunteer doctors) have performed 100 operations on burned and disfigured children, free of charge.

Although Sheftall is most passionate about his medical work, it’s not his only enthusiasm: he’s also a card-carrying member of the Malaysian PGA Tour, a status he earned in 2005 at the tour’s grueling qualifying school (or Q School). It’s probably the most unlikely of all his achievements. A talented junior golfer, Sheftall gave up the game at age 15. He had what he calls a “temper problem” and seemed destined never to compete again.

But in Cambodia, he picked the game back up. And on a trip to the States in 2003, he got a chance to try out the pros’ driving range at Florida’s famed TCP Sawgrass with his brother, a longtime friend of U.S. PGA Tour pro Mark McCumber. While ­Shef-tall was hitting practice shots, McCumber and fellow PGA pro Paul Azinger complimented him on his technique and compared him to some famous players. After inviting him back to play 18 holes a week later, McCumber told him that with some lessons and serious practice, he might be able to compete professionally. “Believe me, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Pro golfers don’t usually do that,” recalls Sheftall, who hadn’t played golf seriously in 30 years.

Sheftall took the advice to heart. In Striking It Rich, he describes high-stakes money matches with Cambodian governmental and military officials, the grind of Q School, and life on the Malaysian PGA Tour. He also weaves in stories from his surgical practice, which provide a rich backdrop for his improbable golf story.

Virtually all touring professionals play golf in college; at MIT, Sheftall steered clear of it altogether, though he played varsity tennis and lacrosse and earned a spot on the crew team. Most touring pros have received countless lessons from professionals; Sheftall’s had two. And while his competitors spend the time between tour events perfecting their chipping or putting, he is in surgery, doing such things as reconstructing the upper body of a 15-year-old Cambodian girl who hasn’t moved her arms in five years because they fused to her torso after another child spilled hot oil on her.

“The golf-tour guys know me as one of their own who happens to also be a doctor, which blows them away,” says Sheftall, who’s called “Doc” on tour. He’s played in about 20 events so far and is trying to compete in nine in 2008. “I play tour events when I can, and I practice when I can,” he says, alluding to Cambodia’s limited golf facilities, many with dirt fairways and bumpy greens.

Now 51, Sheftall competes against men half his age who live and die by how well they play. “It’s at such a high level, and the subtleties between surviving and not surviving are so slim,” he says. “Everybody has to be completely focused on what they’re doing.” His other career helps Sheftall maintain his perspective. It’s “not the end of the world when you make a mistake playing a sport,” he says, “because if you’re doing things that really do matter to someone’s life on a regular basis, you realize that whether I shoot a 77 or 71 really only matters to me.” As he writes in his book, “Pressure is not a side hill four-footer to make a professional cut. It’s shaping your only brittle porcelain eye prosthesis on a rough sidewalk while a 15-year-old girl and her mother wait to see if the teasing will stop.”

He is happy to report, though, that he’s hung onto his Malaysian tour card. In fact, in May he tied for 15th in the Malaysian PGA Championship; his pro-tour scoring average is around 73. “Just being a professional athlete is a thrill for an old guy like me,” he says. Although Sheftall’s U.S. Golf Association handicap is an impressive +4, meaning he’ll beat a golfer with a -4 handicap by at least eight strokes, he fell out of the USGA’s good graces after pointing out a mathematical flaw in its equivalency formula. He’s since filed a provisional patent application for his own formula.

The USGA may not appreciate Sheftall’s facility with math, but his physics acumen comes in handy on the course. For instance, he knows it’s easier to putt straight downhill than uphill “because gravity vectors are always pushing the offline shots back online.”

Sheftall intends to move back to the United States one day, and now that he’s over 50, he could try to qualify for the U.S. Champions Tour. But he’s not in any hurry. “I’m not going to do charity work forever, but right now I’m not ready to give it up,” he says. “And I’m not just going to quit medicine and play golf–although I might do a little better as a golfer if I did.”

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