An Accident with Purpose
Bob Padgett ’68 chose a career in emergency medicine after a life-altering car crash. He was a 19-year-old freshman in USC Dornsife with no clear direction when he awoke in a hospital bed.By Ambrosia Brody
June 25, 2012
On a bright day in 1964, Bob Padgett drove a company Ford van down two-lane Highway 4 from Hayward, Calif., to a construction site in Pittsburg, a 43-mile trip, and rounded the top of a small hill. Without any warning signage to alert him, Padgett looked up to see the bumper of a slow-moving truck watering plants in the center divider a few feet in front of him. He slammed on the brakes and heard tires skidding on asphalt.
Then everything went black.
Living with his parents in San Mateo, Calif., during the summer after his freshman year at USC, Padgett had taken an equipment delivery job. A routine run would alter his future.
He woke up in a hospital bed in Contra Costa County and his parents told him what happened. Padgett was driving at an estimated 65 miles per hour in a vehicle that lacked seatbelts when he rear-ended the truck, thrusting his head and upper body through the windshield. A fire team used a torch to free him. It was a miracle Padgett was alive.
“The car looked like an accordion,” Padgett said, recalling photos.
Hospital physicians tended to his broken jaw, ankle, hip and pelvis as well as his fractured tibia and fibula, right knee and left femur. He was later transferred to San Mateo Medical Center, where he spent four months undergoing surgeries and recovering.
“It was through this experience that I got my first awareness of what medicine was like,” he said, “and learned the interesting interactions between doctors and patients.”
Several months into his recovery, he was able to lower himself from the bed to a wheelchair and meander throughout the facility. But with both legs in casts, Padgett had no choice but to spend most of his time observing the medical staff. He was impressed with what he saw. The 19-year-old was intrigued by the doctors’ and nurses’ efficiency and ability to save the lives of strangers. He was reminded of his own family physician, Adolph Lakes, who had the same qualities. The compassionate doctor also had ties to USC. Among them, his daughter, former Congresswoman Jane Harman, is a USC trustee.
During Padgett’s hospital stay, “It just sunk in that there were many people genuinely interested in my outcome,” he said. “They did not know me, had never seen me before and all of a sudden I was presented to them in a very negative circumstance with all types of injuries. Their job was to combine their efforts to put me back together.
“It worked itself into my psyche and wore on me in a positive way.”
Shortly before his accident, Padgett had begun his freshman year as a history major in USC Dornsife. He had taken a variety of courses expecting that something would light his fuse. He had held an affinity for cardinal and gold since age 1, when his father, Robert Padgett, brought him to campus in 1946. After serving in World War II, his father enrolled at USC on the G.I. Bill that same year and in 1950 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration. When the younger Padgett himself became a Trojan, he knew he belonged at USC, but was unsure about his career path.
“Back then it was about taking classes and having fun,” the younger Padgett said. “I expected that things would fall into place.”
But things had taken an unexpected turn. By the spring of his sophomore year, Padgett was able to walk without crutches and in 1966 rejoined the varsity crew team. He returned to campus with a new focus: enrolling in courses required for medical school. Padgett decided to continue pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history because many of the classes required for medical school overlapped with the major. He enjoyed Joseph Boskin’s history class and in his life sciences studies he was particularly impressed with Richard Stone’s historical geology, Thomas Clements’ physical geology, Paul Saunders’ human biology and Ronald Brown’s organic chemistry courses.
“I was so fearful in that organic chemistry class,” Padgett said. “Ronald Brown was tough, but his class and others I took at ’SC helped me learn how to buckle down.”
Outside of class, Padgett attended football games and rushed Kappa Alpha Order. He made lifelong friends who would become major figures at USC: Taylor Hackford, who in 1968 earned a bachelor’s in international relations in USC Dornsife, became an Academy Award-winning film director, and in 2010 received USC’s Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award; and USC trustee David Dornsife, who graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s in business administration. Dornsife and his wife, Dana, would later provide $200 million — the largest single gift in USC’s history — to name the college of letters, arts and sciences.
Hackford and Padgett worked during the school year and much of the summer and then spent the end of the summer hitchhiking from state to state, visiting historic sites and exploring cities. Hackford recalled how Padgett’s life changed after his accident.
“His old charm didn’t disappear as he found time to become president of the Kappa Alpha fraternity and was focused intensely on his new goal of becoming a doctor,” Hackford said. “Suffice it to say, he accomplished that ambition with alacrity and has worked productively for the past 40 years saving people’s lives.”
Upon graduation in 1968, Padgett ventured 1,549 miles to attend medical school at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., with a few fellow Trojans. After enduring a Midwest winter, he transferred to the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, where he obtained his M.D. in 1972.
Vowing to never stray too far from his alma mater, he began a paid internship at LAC+USC Medical Center, where he met his wife of 34 years, Valerie, a nursing student at California State University, Los Angeles. As he rotated from obstetrics and gynecology to cardiology and radiology, he knew he was well suited for the fast-paced, high-intensity work.
He had kept in touch with his USC friends, who were now in a position to offer him a job at the then-Doctors of Hospital Lakewood (now the Lakewood Regional Medical Center). He went on to serve as assistant director of the center’s emergency unit from 1981 until his retirement in 2000.
Padgett marked his first day at the Lakewood medical center as his first true experience in the workforce. He remembers walking down the hospital corridor, passing a patient’s room and stopping in his tracks.
“My patient was fibrillating,” he recalled, “and I had to act immediately to save his life.”
A rush of adrenaline flowed through him as he called for nurses, grabbed the defibrillator and saved the patient’s life. It was moments like these that fueled Padgett’s passion for medicine.
Throughout his career, Padgett appreciated the work and enjoyed making a difference in his patients’ lives. He also formed a tight-knit group of physician friends.
“There’s a camaraderie that develops in the emergency room,” he said. “Physicians are results-oriented and we were all there for the common good.”
A Manhattan Beach, Calif., resident since 1974, Padgett worked in various emergency facilities throughout his 28-year career. When a fellow alumnus asked him to serve as ship doctor aboard the S.S. Universe Campus for the World Campus Afloat program (now called Semester at Sea), he enthusiastically agreed to spend the Spring semester of 1975 traveling the globe and being the sole physician for 500 students and 200 faculty and staff. He also worked in emergency rooms in Alabama, often flying from Los Angeles to the Heart of Dixie for eight-day stays.
The energetic physician has not slowed since his retirement. He volunteers with Liga International’s Flying Doctors of Mercy, provides free medical care to patients at clinics in Sinaloa, Mexico, and maintains a strong presence at USC, including serving as a member of the USC Board of Trustees. A past president of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors, he is also a member of the USC Athletics Board of Councilors and the board of the Women of Troy.
“USC provides the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life — from colleagues, teachers to lifelong friends,” Padgett said. “USC is a major part of my life and the life of my family.”
The Padgett legacy continues with his son Cody, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in USC Dornsife in 2006, and his daughter Shayne, who graduated from Long Beach Community College and is a registered nurse at the Keck Hospital of USC.
Padgett pondered what his life would have been like had the accident not occurred. He believes the time he spent confined to a hospital bed and later exploring the various wards in a wheelchair ignited his interest in medicine.
“Emergency medicine really is a reward scenario,” Padgett said. “There are so many opportunities to make a real difference.”
Before the accident, he lacked a strong sense about what he wanted to do for a living.
“Majors such as business didn’t light me up,” Padgett said. “I just knew something would happen to give me direction. And something did.”