From UNLV News Center - October 2015
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 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.
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
When the wind blew, you got a facial dermabrasion,” he said, laughing.
“Because of my dismal record at the University 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.
After retiring from the field in 2011, Lazarus ran a wound care facility in Placentia, CA and engaged in woodworking, selling custom bowls and wine stoppers made out of exotic woods.
In 2015, he said he looked forward to what the UNLV School of Medicine would bring to Southern Nevada.
“The institution will change the face of the city," he predicted. "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.”