Dr. Christopher J.W.B. Leggett
Provision and Prayer Just What This Doctor Ordered
Dr. Christopher J.W.B. Leggett
Christopher J.W.B. Leggett, M.D. is a world-renowned Interventional Cardiologist recognized as one of America’s leading physicians in the field. In the 1980s, he was one of the first African-Americans at Johns Hopkins and in the early 2000s, during the Bush Administration, he served in the department of Health and Human Services. Family is the top priority to Leggett and at an early age he learned the importance of keeping his faith as his foundation. His journey has consisted of attending some of the most prestigious schools where he met lifelong friends like John F. Kennedy Jr., and Ben Carson, M.D. Behind the accolades lies a humble man who Risen caught up with to learn more about his childhood as one of eleven kids born to a Baptist minister, navigating healthcare, and his desire to always strive for excellence while giving all the glory to God.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Growing up in Ohio, you were the tenth child of eleven children. What was that dynamic like and how did it shape you?
Dr. Christopher J.W.B. Leggett: I had eight sisters and two brothers, but one of my older brothers died as a child, so [it became] eight sisters and one brother. The dynamic was great, there were always people who had gone before me in school, there was a variety of personalities and skill sets of excellence.
My dad was a Baptist minister so first of all, it [our home] was run by spiritual leadership by my parents. Every morning at 7 a.m., my dad would bring us all downstairs and we would have family worship before he left the house. It wasn’t a situation where we took a vote and he asked us who wants to do worship today or how we felt about it. It was just life, it was an environment that they were building to teach us how to depend on God and have faith that the Lord will deliver for us. It was wonderful!
My sisters were consistently creating an environment that was empowering to me as a child because they always made me feel great about whatever it was I was trying to pursue and there was never a sense that it was unachievable. My brother, the second oldest, was ten years older than me and after my dad died when I was eight years old, he became a central figure for me. He was my greatest mentor; I looked to his example. Everything he did in his life I wanted to do – from being interested in math and numbers, to facing challenges and excelling at Princeton. We learned how to share, we shared everything. We didn’t live in a mansion, we lived in a small house with one bathroom in the inner-city. When my dad died my mother was 39 years old with all eleven of us to provide for. Instead of going on public assistance she went out and got a job. She was never on welfare. She started working at the local junior high school serving lunch in an effort to help us survive. The dynamic that became familiar to me was recognizing that hard work, self-respect, commitment, dedication and excellence is the only way to live. I never learned how to not engage myself to work hard because all I ever saw was my mother’s example.
The reality of it is even with that many kids and limited funds I never felt economically deprived or the limitation of our economics, because it wasn’t the basis of our existence. We were wealthy in character, dignity, faith and pride. Therefore, I never walked around thinking about what I didn’t have because I always had everything I needed. I have had my struggles and I think it’s important to acknowledge that the devil is real and he’s going to fight you all the way. And with each battle that you go through, the Lord finds a way to allow you to survive and come back stronger and more fervent. I pray in the morning. I pray for protection over my family, patience, peace of mind, comfort in the decisions I make, safety in my soul that the Lord will protect me and that I will get to see my parents again one day. There is nothing else that can provide that peace of mind. You can’t buy it. You can have two cents or a billion dollars and make it to Heaven, no one is excluded.
RM: At thirteen-years-old you were awarded a three-year academic scholarship to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, [prep boarding school for grades 9-12] which meant you would have to leave everything you knew in Cleveland, Ohio, and move to an unknown place. What was this experience like for you leaving your family?
CL: My father passed away five years before my opportunity to go to Phillips Academy through the “A Better Chance” program. When he passed away my oldest brother was a freshman at Princeton and my older sister was a freshman at San Jose State in California. Everyone thought that they would have to stop pursuing their education and come back home to help my mom support us. My mom’s faith would not allow them to quit their education. She knew that somehow the Lord would provide. I had seen a lot of honor and character-building in my older siblings that reached far beyond what money can buy through their educational experiences. So when I was presented with the opportunity to interview for the “A Better Chance” program I didn’t know anything about it, but I did know that it was a good way to a different educational opportunity.
I heard about the opportunity through an elder in my church who valued education. In the interview process there was no favoritism, I had to work hard to compete with the other candidates. Then once I was chosen they tried to match me with a secondary school across the country that best suited my academic background. Having seen the strength of my older siblings and their persistence in educational pursuits I was not intimidated by the prospect of attending school with individuals who I had never met and the academic pursuit at Phillips Academy. What was different for me was going from an all-black community to being one out of 100 students who were black. It felt like you were the only black person in every class you went to, but fundamentally on a social level we’d always been taught to respect others and evaluate each individual for their own merits and to not pigeonhole or categorize people.
With my faith as a base I was able to go there and make fantastic friends, who now 40 years later, still comprise the best quality friendships that I have in my life. However, with less than one percent of the population being African-American at that age, I did feel some degree of isolation. It affected everyone on all sides; they weren’t used to it and I wasn’t used to it. But I think that the school did the best they could in those times to integrate us into the population and make us feel at home.
RM: During your time at Phillips Academy I understand that John F. Kennedy Jr., was one of your classmates and a close friend. What did that friendship look like?
CL: The impact in friendships is that people are people. People don’t get to select what families they are born into and John didn’t select to be the son of the president. I didn’t select to be the son of a Baptist minister. You are born into whatever family you were born into and the question becomes, “How does that relationship inside that household prepare you to interact with the rest of the world?” The benefit of friendship and the uniqueness of it and our ability to have a very deep relationship for all of those years was really based on how we were taught at home to interact with people outside of our home. It was those teachings that allowed us to nurture and develop a relationship.
The impact it had on me was probably no different than the impact of all the other fantastic friendships I made at Andover. I guess the uniqueness of it was that he was a son of a president. And having met his mom [Jackie Kennedy Onassis], I can see how he became the person that he was because she was a very gracious, elegant woman who was compassionate and engaged in his childhood friendships, just like my mother was who was from Slidell, Louisiana. My mom was equally interested in my friendships. My mom would tell me, “John is your friend, you love him because he is your friend and that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a son of a president, because he didn’t ask to be that. It’s based on your friendship with him and that alone.” There were Rockefellers at Andover and all sorts of notable families. However, we weren’t enamored with particular families, because the basis of interaction and the person we had to live with all year long was each other.
RM: You then went on to earn a college scholarship to Princeton University where you graduated pre-med with a B.A. in Sociology. What take away can you give our readers about your experience at Princeton?
CL: When I look at Princeton I look at the wonderful education it provided for phenomenal opportunities to develop intellectually along a variety of different academic pathways. I have fond memories because of the many wonderful friendships I made and still enjoy today. Additionally, it was where I first developed my interest in the field of medicine. A classmate, named Henri Ford, was pivotal in nurturing my interest in medicine. He’s now a world-renowned pediatric surgeon out of USC [University of Southern California].
RM: You received your M.D. in 1986 and completed your internal medicine internship and residency at the world renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Share some of your experiences from this time period in your life and how it strengthened you?
CL: Johns Hopkins was phenomenal! It represented to me the very pinnacle of medical education because it embraced an idea of ensuring that every patient who entered those doors of the hospital could have access to a solution to their medical illness. There was an inherent expectation that we would work tirelessly to understand the factors that contributed to their illness and make sure that every patient received the best care possible so that we could ensure their potential for a good outcome. I think fundamentally it prepared you in such a way that at the end of your internship and residency you felt that you could go to any place on this planet and figure out what was going on with any patient that was put in front of you. You are no longer intimidated by the unknown disease, because you had the requisite tools to try and figure it out. Johns Hopkins taught you in a non-arrogant way to embrace excellence and take excellence wherever you go, so that wherever you show up, that’s where excellence will be.
My internship and residency was highly challenging and very demanding. The interactions with the other residents and medical staff on the rotation was always information-based. It was never personal or weighted down with ethnic inequalities. It was purely based on compassion, concern and a commitment to doing your best for every patient you cared for or there would be a price to pay for being unprepared. The other huge blessing during my time at Johns Hopkins was the opportunity the Lord provided for me to see myself in the future through African-American surgical pioneers like Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.
Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., and Dr. Ben Carson were the first African-Americans trained as cardiovascular and neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Additionally, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., was individually responsible for increasing enrollment of students of color probably more than anyone else in the history of that institution and across the country. I met Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., when I was a sophomore at Princeton when he spoke to our Medical Society.
I looked at it as I could choose to be either one of these people, because they are real. I thought, “I’m in an environment where the numbers are not in my favor, but that doesn’t matter because if these are the numbers now they probably were worse ratios when Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., came through.” The wonderful thing about it was on your worst day, there were times I could just go to their office and sit on their couch, talk to them and realize that I’m going to make it and this is going to work out. I thank God for sending me those examples at that time because when you’re trying to charge your path and figure out the direction that you’re going to go, you need examples of people who you respect that can give you proper advice and you can watch their character and their path and it helps you to understand the journey of it all.
There is a comfort knowing that the Lord is going to prevail and that if man doesn’t provide a solution, that doesn’t mean that a solution doesn’t exist. I’m so thankful that I learned that early on.
From Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., I got to see how a cardiothoracic surgeon was fully engaged in civil rights simultaneous to his intellectual paralysis at Hopkins. And from Dr. Ben Carson, I got to see someone who is spiritually grounded and unafraid to talk about his faith in the most pristine academic environment where one’s faith is viewed as some sort of ephemeral-like thought that has no basis in reality. He was unafraid. It’s just amazing how both of these world-renowned people were right there in front of me who I could see anytime on any day if I chose to.
RM: When it comes to faith, what has your journey looked like? How did having your father as a Baptist minister influence your outlook?
CL: I am so glad that I grew up in a household that believed that God was real. I am so fortunate to have a mother and a father who lived a life that was based on their faith in God. My dad was a Baptist minister; he went to the 8th grade and my mom only went to 12th grade. But they were fully invested in the Bible, in faith, and as a young person I never felt that I was incapable of doing or becoming anything because my faith in the Lord allowed me to believe that anything and everything was possible. We grew up in the inner-city but I never felt poor, disenfranchised or excluded. You could see the difference in the money, I’m not going to act like I couldn’t see the difference in people who had money. There were times that I couldn’t fly home to Cleveland because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket while friends from school were going to the Bahamas.
[I] grew up in a household with faith, prayer, routine of church and worship, watching a healthy marital relationship where my dad fully respected my mother, fully embraced and engaged her and made us respect her. Maybe our home was full of faith because we didn’t have any of the world’s economic benefits, I’m not sure. But I am so glad that I grew up in that kind of an environment where I wasn’t dependent on man or the physical aspects of this world to make me feel good about myself in that time.
There is a comfort knowing that the Lord is going to prevail and that if man doesn’t provide a solution, that doesn’t mean that a solution doesn’t exist. I’m so thankful that I learned that early on. I think it helps me in my walk as a physician to not be so engaged in the process where I believe that I am always the answer because I am just so smart. To this day I still pray before each procedure.
RM: You have been known to share your belief in the power of prayer and invite your patients and their families to pray openly in the middle of the hospital before performing surgery. Why do you think prayer has power and how have people responded?
CL: I know prayer has power because I saw how it allowed us to survive. My mother never doubted that we were going to survive and her faith was what allowed her to put me on that plane when I was thirteen years old to send me to Phillips Academy. Never having seen it, she just knew intuitively that the opportunity had to be better than what I was facing in the inner city of Cleveland. Her faith and her prayer to the Lord had already given her the answer that this was the right thing to do for me. Because of that, I realized that I needed prayer for myself. I need it to assure me that the Lord is with me and that He’s going to help me during each procedure. With each operation the acuity of the situation is always high, the likeliness of death is always present and sometimes you have the chance to make one decision that could be good or could be less than good. I invite God into every operation so that I know that He is on board. Once God is engaged in prayer, then I can proceed fully and be willing to embrace the outcome.
RM: You were appointed by the Bush Administration/ United States Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to serve on the National Practicing Physician Advisory Council [PPAC] in Washington, D.C., for a four-year term that was completed in 2006. What did it mean to hold this position and what influence did you have on healthcare?
CL: When I got that employment, just to give you an example of my wife’s insight and her faith, the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m proud of you for receiving this appointment, but don’t make it about you. Don’t get so absorbed in the appointment that you think you are so great. The fact of the matter is that the Lord sent you this appointment for a reason, you need to get on your knees and ask the Lord to help you understand what that reason is because in reality, He could have picked somebody else to do His work but He chose you. So your job is to now understand why He chose you for this Administration.” Her words immediately took the self-adulation out of it for me because it was really on-point that she would be that unadulterated and raw in her assessment and say that basically you’re great, but God could pick somebody else, you’re just the vessel so now you have to pray even more to understand why He chose you.
Our role was very widespread, it was really trying to understand the Congressional laws and public and private organizations that impacted patient healthcare across the country. Our basic role on the PPAC committee was to create opportunities and patient access for our beneficiaries to high-quality health care and maintain patient excellence. We had different advocacy groups whether it was the American Medical Association, private industry or governmental institutions that would participate in this process. Our role was to listen to these presentations, look at the laws that were being generated by Congress and Senate, find out time tables for their impact on society, and take into account these advocacy issues and see if the laws that were being created were actually addressing these issues.
Family is critical. It is also a refuge where you can recover from your wounds and regain strength to fight another day. A place where you can find positive reinforcement and affirmation that your journey is worthy of being traveled.
Early on I didn’t have a single best answer as to why God was calling me to be on this PPAC board, but I did understand that God has His own timetable timetable. He may have been utilizing me in that capacity for five years, for something He has that He wants me to do two years from now. The reality is my relationship with Dr. Ben Carson, which is now thirty years old, was built in an environment that pre-dated any political interests. It was built on a friendship and who knows what the composite of that friendship in the future will be utilized for.
I look at the appointment the same way. I acquired a set of skills that allowed me to understand certain dynamics of care in our country and expose me to different populations of people that I have relationships with. It’s just a matter of doing your job the best you can for that particular time and really understanding that the Lord is not constrained by time and that He may introduce you into something that has a plan for years later.
RM: As a clinical academic interventional cardiologist, I’m sure you are asked to support many different organizations. Yet, you chose to become the Chief Medical Director for Daily Body Restore. What about this company made you want to get involved?
CL: As we explore pathways to improve overall care, what we’re consistently finding out is that there is more than one way to engage recovery and prevent disease. I believe it was spiritually divine that I met Kim Shafer who is the founder/CEO of Daily Body Restore (DBR). The work that she’s done and her experience of the pathway that she is taking, developing this therapy, is remarkable.
What we’re finding in literature published across the board is that the engagement of the immunologic system and our ability to understand the bio environment in which that exists and how probiotics and enzymes impact that environment in diseases like cholesterol and potentially cancer, Crohn’s disease, malnutrition and things of that nature, are in a state of evolution. I think that the attentive person who has access to these technologies is looking for ways to engage these technologies for the betterment of the existing pool of patients. Whether the patients are with or without disease.
One of the greatest things about DBR, it allows me to reach an audience and present them with hope not only for their health, but also for their spiritual life, and that is really what my life should be about at this point. I’ve done enough operating. While I still enjoy it, I think that my bigger purpose in life right now is reaching people.
RM: You’ve been married to your wife, Denise, for more than thirty years and you have two kids. In 2009, you were recognized as Father of the Year by the American Diabetes Association. With all of your responsibilities, how do you keep your family a priority and why is it important to you?
CL: Family is all I have ever known. I grew up in a wonderful family. I think that the idea of family is wonderful. It’s invigorating, wholesome,
and interdependent. My parents were examples of goodness for me with faith, principle, dignity, character and development that my wife and I need to be that for our children so they can see it, know what that looks like and be able to distinguish it from imposters. We have a daughter and I’m hopeful that she has seen how I have treated her mom for the last 27 years so that she will look for the same qualities in someone she wants in her life. And our son should be able to look at his mother and see the type of woman he wants to have in his life. To that extent family is critical.
I invite God into every operation so that I know that He is on board. Once God is engaged in prayer, then I can proceed fully and be willing to embrace the outcome.
It is also a refuge where you can recover from your wounds and regain strength to fight another day. A place where you can find positive reinforcement and affirmation that your journey is worthy of being traveled; that the ideas upon which you concentrate on actually have merit. To that extent I think that family is irreplaceable. For me, Denise has been remarkable, the source of life, strength and faith. Her self-sacrificing, unselfish and giving heart have changed my life. I just hope that I reward her properly and that I acknowledge it in a way that makes it all worth it.
I received an award in 2007 as President of the American Heart Association where I was Physician of the Year. I was the first African-American and youngest person honored in its thirty-year history, and that was three years before the American Diabetes award. I said in my acceptance speech that my ability to be acknowledged was in direct result of my wife’s sacrifice and time because it allowed me to pursue my career at the highest level. She has seen me at every level. Before medical, during medical school, in residency and after. She knows me, she’s seen the Chris Leggett before any of the accolades you’ve ever read about. I was unproven. All I had was dignity and character. She invested in that.
I’m grateful that I could be a representative for fatherhood and marriage with the American Diabetes Award in 2009. Family is a core principle, it’s all I’ve ever known.