It was his 85th birthday and LaSalle Leffall, a retired surgeon who still make makes rounds and lectures, was in the auditorium of the Howard University Hospital lecturing surgical residents about remaining calm when they encounter tense moments in the OR. Then he quoted from “Aequanimitas: A Biographical Note,” which was written by medical pioneer Sir William Osler.
“Equanimity under duress,” said Leffall adding that one of the best attributes of surgeon is to “maintain that degree of calmness and tranquility because that will allow you to do what is appropriate in any circumstance.”
Joel Stevens, a general surgeon at Providence Hospital, nodded his head. Seated next to Stevens was his son, who will be a first-year medical student at Howard this fall. Following the lecture, Stevens rushed up to Leffall and introduced him to his son. In 1968, Leffall taught him as a first year medical student, Stevens said.
“I will never forget it. I said to myself, ‘Who is this man,’” said Stevens, who was among the attending surgeons and residents who took time out to celebrate the 85th birthday of a medical pioneer who has no plans to hanging up his lab coat at a medical school and hospital after more than 50 years.
“My philosophy is that as long as you have your health and you enjoy what you do then you should continue,” said Leffall in an interview after a modified Grand Rounds on Monday where university officials made an 8-minute video and held a surprise luncheon on Leffall’s honor.
Edward E. Cornwell III, the LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. Professor and Chairman of Surgery at Howard University, said having a special Grand Rounds honoring Leffall Monday was important. “We wanted to celebrate someone who has had both impact and longevity and that is what today’s ceremony was all about.”
Cornwell said Leffall is the living link for modern day surgeons and medical pioneers like Dr. Charles Drew, a medical pioneer whose research with blood transfusion help to develop blood bank technology around the world.
“You will notice on that video there was actually footage of Dr. Drew and for all that I have heard of Dr. Drew that was the first time that I got to see actually footage of Dr. Drew,” Cornwell said.
During his lecture Leffall couldn’t help but to talk about Drew, the former chairman of the Howard University Department of Surgery, who died in a car accident April 1, 1950 in Burlington, N.C. while he was driving to a medical/surgical conference in Tuskeegee, Alabama.
Thinking it was a bad April fools joke, Leffall said he couldn’t believe that one of his mentors had passed away, but then “Dr. Booker then turned us and said I have some very sad news for our chief of surgery was killed in tragic automobile accident.”
Drew had a close relationship with the surgical staff at the famed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. From 1957 to 1959, Leffall studied at Sloan Kettering In 1962, he went to Howard, where he rose from being an Assistant Professor of Surgery to Professor to Chairman of the Department of Surgery in 1970.
During his career, Leffall has taught more than 6,000 medical students and trained more than 300 surgical residents. Even though Leffall retired from performing surgery nine years ago he remains on the faculty as a lecturer and resource at Howard, who still arrives at the hospital by 6 a.m. every morning.
Leffall has lectured at more than 200 medical institutions across country and among his efforts is to clear up the urban legend that Drew died without getting blood products even though he was one of the pioneers with the development of blood plasma
“So many people had heard that he had been turned away and didn’t get proper care,” Leffall said. “He was given care but his injuries were very severe. To say that [he didn’t get adequate care] would be a disservice to those people in a predominantly white hospital in North Carolina that gave Dr. Drew treatment that morning.”
In terms of the future, Leffall is hopeful.
“I have gotten so much in life but it is not what you get, it is what you give. I have received a lot but I want to give a lot,” Leffall said. “I’m so hopeful for the future. We have made so many advances and so many reasons to be hopeful.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information about Leffall’s tenure at Sloan Kettering. It also misspelled Dr. Joel Stevens’s name. Both errors have been corrected.