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UNLV's 'First' Medical Student

On a whim, Stephen Lazarus signed up for a class while dealing cards. It was a decision that saved the ER-doc’s life.

People  |  Oct 9, 2015  |  By Brian Sodoma

Dr. Stephen Lazarus headed to medical school after graduating from UNLV in 1966. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Stephen Lazarus’ Las Vegas tale starts off like a movie cliché: A good Midwestern kid is traumatized by his father’s death, flunks out of school, and drifts to Sin City in 1959 with $50 in his pocket and hungry for a job. A high-pressure medical career — and earning the informal title of UNLV’s first student to go to medical school — was the furthest thing from his mind.

“(UNLV) basically saved my life. I have a really strong sentimental attachment to that school,” said Lazarus, ’66 BA Psychology. “Without it, I wouldn’t have ever gotten back on track.”

Straight A's to Flunking Out 

Lazarus, now 77, had a normal childhood in Grand Rapids, Mich., until, at the age of 11, he lost his father in an airplane crash. To cope, he withdrew socially and immersed himself in his studies. “Overnight I became a straight ‘A’ student,” he remembers. “I was one of the original nerds.”

Those grades earned him a University of Michigan scholarship to study nuclear physics, “but I had no social experience. I sort of went haywire,” he said. “I blew through my scholarships, and by the spring semester of my sophomore year, I just took off. I flunked all 16 credits.”

After working odd jobs in Michigan and Southern California, he set out for Las Vegas. He slept in his car until landing a job at the Nevada Club as a door greeter. He enrolled in dealer school and dealt blackjack, craps, and roulette at 14 different casinos in his time in Las Vegas.

In 1961, the Army drafted Lazarus and he was stationed in France, where his Fremont Street skills paid off. He pocketed money dealing craps and loan sharking in the barracks, he said. When his second year of service was up, he tried to re-enlist but the Army wasn’t impressed. “I was a pest. They didn’t want me around,” he added.

A Change

When Lazarus returned to The States, he went back to Las Vegas and began dealing again. One afternoon, strictly on a whim, after being out of school for seven years, he drove out to “that new school way out on Maryland Parkway” and enrolled in a philosophy and psychology class. “The administration building had some landscaping, but the rest of the campus would put the Mojave desert to shame…it was all sand with an occasional cactus. We called UNLV Tumbleweed Tech. When the wind blew, you got a facial dermabrasion” he said, laughing. “Because of my dismal record at the U of Michigan, they accepted me on probation. That seemed fitting for someone who wasn’t a serious student."

Lazarus was pleasantly surprised how the classes challenged him. His academic skills, dormant for years, were revived and given new life. “The instructors were excellent. They were new, young talent from all the top West Coast schools … they inspired me and rekindled my interest in academics.”

Lazarus dealt craps at night and attended school during the day. “It was a punishing routine, but I was insanely motivated.” His effort at UNLV earned him a bachelor of arts degree in 1966. He took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and scored well. He was accepted to the University of Oregon School of Medicine and graduated in June 1971.

“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was the U.S. Army’s denial of my re-enlistment application and their refusal to extend my tour of duty. Had they accepted me back in, I would’ve never gone back to school,” Lazarus said.

Into the ER

After medical school, he landed at California's San Bernardino County Medical Center in 1972 and discovered the then-emerging field of emergency medicine. "Every case was like a puzzle to be solved…and I love puzzles,” he said. “Emergency medicine is a stirred up, fast-paced environment of crisis intervention. You have to love it, or you become a misplaced person.”

In 1973, he was instrumental in opening a new emergency room at Redlands Community Hospital, where he remained the director of the department for the next 25 years. Emergency medicine was formally recognized as a specialty in the early 1980s, and Lazarus was among the first in the country to become board certified in the field.

“Before that it was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants medicine. … Back then, we didn’t have MRIs , CT scans, or an array of high-powered antibiotics. We didn't have sophisticated protocols and techniques we now use to treat cardiopulmonary problems,” he recalled.

He retired from the field in 2011 but still runs the wound care facility in Placentia, Calif. The physician says UNLV’s new medical school brings an opportunity for the city to boost its image as a place where higher education is a priority.

“The institution will change the face of the city," he predicts. "It will encourage people to refresh their view of what Las Vegas is really all about…a multi-dimensional stage. The stigma of “Sin City” is definitely in jeopardy of being replaced by something more defining and capturing.”


A Second Life

Stephen Lazarus’ restless nature couldn’t be subdued as he settled into a career in emergency medicine. The extremely long workdays in the emergency room also mean the doctors enjoy extended stretches with days off. Lazarus was not one to idle away the time.

“[The field] allows you to lead two lives, so I started woodworking,” he said.

Lazarus took to wood carving more than 30 years ago and at one time had a business where he built custom doors, spiral staircases, and furniture. Now he creates and sells custom bowls and wine-bottle stoppers using exotic wood from more than 200 regions around the globe.

He displays his work at numerous art festivals, including the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts and the Pasadena Contemporary Craft Market, and sells his pieces in area galleries and on his Wood for Thought website.