Physician Spotlight: Dr. Walter Rayford
Dr. Walter Rayford, MD, PhD, FACS, a urologic oncologist with the Southeast Urology Network in Memphis, knows what it means to take the road less traveled.
Originally from Byhalia, Miss., Rayford began seriously considering a career in medicine just after finishing his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Kansas in 1987.
"My father died from gastric cancer, and it made me think more about medicine. Also, I realized that PhDs were plentiful, and I didn't want to have a career that was dependent upon federal funding," says Rayford.
While he initially began studying obstetrics and gynecology, he never truly enjoyed the work. During the same time period, however, Rayford took a surgical urology rotation and was drawn by the surgical subspecialty and the wide research potential in the field.
In 1996, Rayford achieved one of his "firsts" at the University of Kansas by becoming the first African-American to complete the urology residency program. He would find himself again forging new roads when he was accepted into a two-year fellowship program at the National Institutes of Health that same year.
"I was the first African-American urologist to complete a urologic oncology fellowship at the Urology Branch of the National Cancer Institute and the first African-American to complete the urology residency program at the University of Kansas School of Medicine," says Rayford.
Through the years, Rayford's primary research and practice interest has been on prostate cancer. More recently, his interest has expanded to include the study of health disparities, specifically when it comes to prostate cancer in African-American men.
Rayford's approach has been consistent through the years and reflected in his work. "I believe it is possible to overcome with education."
Prostate cancer is among the most diagnosed diseases in men, according to Rayford. It disproportionately impacts African-Americans, who generally have a worse mortality rate and higher rate of incidence.
Following his fellowship, Rayford was recruited to New Orleans, where he believed the opportunities to help others and to grow professionally existed. In just six short years, Rayford would become a tenured associate professor in the department of urology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center within the School of Medicine. He also served … and continues to serve … as director for the Prostate Cancer In-Reach Program at the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, the coordinator of the Louisiana Statewide Prostate Cancer Program for the Health Care Services Division, and the director for urologic oncology research at LSU's Health Sciences Center.
But for Rayford, his greatest accomplishment is the creation of an education program called the Louisiana Education Early Detection and Research Program (LEED), which he founded in 1998 in response to the ever-present need for education.
"I thought that we could make a difference in patient lives in both Louisiana and the Southeast," says Rayford.
Despite its reputation, Rayford didn't find New Orleans any more challenging than other parts of the country. "There is room for all of us to play a much more active role in education and a lot of people should be held accountable, including hospitals, government, pharmaceutical companies and industry."
And so his work continued in New Orleans.
Like so many others, Rayford packed his bags and evacuated, for what he thought would be a few days. When he returned several weeks later, he found that his home had sustained over $100,000 worth of damage.
"It was the third time we had evacuated, and we didn't think we would be hit. The hurricane was so devastating … and the news showed only a small picture of how it so adversely affected that area," says Rayford.
Rayford faced another unknown road after the hurricane when he had to decide whether or not to stay in Louisiana. "I asked myself if I wanted to be part of the rebuilding process, and I finally decided that it wasn't necessary to be there in order to contribute."
Ironically, just one month before the hurricane, Rayford had begun talking with Southeast Urology in Memphis about joining the practice that had once treated his brother.
Even with his move to Memphis, Rayford remains on the faculty at LSU and continues to serve Louisiana through his many ongoing activities to educate and fight prostate cancer. He believes he can also contribute by continuing his research where it is physically possible and by contributing to the New Orleans tax base by continuing to own property.
In addition to research, Rayford is equally focused on studying healthcare disparities and is the principal investigator on a Department of Defense project entitled, "Health Disparity Elimination Model for Cancer." The grant aims to educate patients, physicians and the community about prostate cancer by employing specific strategies to raise awareness.
"We use direct mail, radio, TV and the media to raise awareness. The end point is measured by a change in knowledge," says Rayford.
Knowledge is measured through surveys, the number of patients screened and by the reduction in mortality rates. "We hope to see more men diagnosed earlier," says Rayford.
Widely published and with many awards and appointments to his credit, Rayford continues to be active in soliciting funds to continue his research, with more than a half dozen applications either in progress or under review.
Despite having achieved acclaim in an area of medicine where few other African-American physicians have chosen to work, Rayford views his success largely in relation to his ability and success in helping others. He credits mentors like Vernon Archer and Robert Sanders for encouraging and teaching him in his early years and acting as surrogate fathers.
With his eyes to the future, Rayford has already marked Memphis as a possible trial site for a new prostate treatment involving high-intensity ultrasound which is currently under FDA review.
While Rayford lives in Memphis with his wife and daughter, his past and present contributions affect many lives throughout Tennessee, Louisiana and the entire Southeast.