Our staff, our stories: Rondell Graham

Rondell Graham, M.B.B.S., associate professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, was born on the Caribbean island of Barbados, where he grew up near to the beach. This might explain his laid-back view of life.

Dr. Graham remembers the island — which is approximately 20 miles from north to south and about 15 miles from east to west — as being a bit crowded. “Barbados is still somewhat densely populated,” he says. “In fact, when I was a child, the population there was about a quarter of a million people, which is about twice the population of Olmsted County and only about one-quarter the size.”

Crowded or not, Dr. Graham recalls his childhood fondly, living beside Oistins Bay on the southern coast. “You could run around and pick fruit from the trees,” he says. “It was a super fun time. I miss the food most — the freshness and flavors.”   

Throughout his school days, Dr. Graham played soccer and cricket, which was the national obsession of the West Indies at the time. “Everyone would play it at school during lunch hour,” Dr. Graham says. “You would eat lunch for three minutes, then play cricket for 57 minutes. Cricket was practically more important than eating.”  

Cricket as a source of unity

Dr. Graham and many of his schoolmates idolized a West Indies cricketer named Viv Richards, considered one of the greatest batsman in West Indies history.

“One of the attributes that characterized him was his not wearing a helmet, and this fearlessness,” says Dr. Graham, alluding to Richards’ daring in facing a cricket ball being bowled at speeds known to reach 90 to 95 miles per hour. “We used to call him the ‘Master Blaster’ and, in terms of his hitting ability, he was the equivalent of a designated hitter (in baseball). He could swing for the fences. He could score high percentages.”  

Cricket, as it turns out, is a vehicle for unity among the islands that make up the West Indies. One day in April 1994 brought this home for Dr. Graham. He was 11 years old and watched as a West Indies cricketer named Brian Lara scored an incredible 375 runs to defeat their greatest rival, England. Lara’s score was a world record at the time for a single match, and he was thereafter known as the “Prince of Port of Spain” — the capital city of his home country, Trinidad and Tobago. His legendary scoring prowess even caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who once called him the “Michael Jordan of cricket.”

“For children all across the English-speaking Caribbean, that world record remains a major mark of national pride because he scored that 375 against England,” Dr. Graham says. “The school principals gave us all time off from class to rejoice in that moment. People were dancing and celebrating in the streets.” 

When you hear Dr. Graham wax eloquent about cricket, it becomes obvious the sport is still a source of joy and pride for him. “One of the things I love about those West Indies cricket teams was the unity within them,” he says. “We were different islands, spread over 1,550 miles, with culinary, cultural, historic, local language dialect, and economic differences, but the unity across those islands regarding cricket was rock solid.”

The call to medicine

In addition to cricket, Dr. Graham also was attracted to medicine. He knew he wanted to be a doctor early on, particularly after observing the caring ways of obstetricians on the island.

“Growing up, I was really impressed with obstetricians because they not only delivered babies and cared for mothers, but many of them had a family medicine component in their practice,” he says. “For example, they would coordinate vaccinations for young children. So I held obstetricians in high regard because of their positive contributions to the community.”    

Hence, when he first entered medical school at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica and was asked by fellow students what kind of doctor he wanted to be, Dr. Graham’s answer was always “an obstetrician.” But he soon got to know several pathologists, and one particular class sealed the deal that changed his area of focus. 

“The class on familial adenomatous polyposis coli (an inherited predisposition to colorectal adenomatous polyps and colon cancer) hooked me on pathology,” he says. “I can still remember sitting in that class and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’ The combination of GI and molecular genetics really attracted me to pathology.”

Investing in relationships

The Barbadian came to Mayo Clinic as a resident in 2009. As his career progressed, Dr. Graham also started a family. He and his wife, Deneene, now have three children — two boys, Ethan and Nolan, and a girl, Olivia. His life was unfolding to his heart’s content, and he saw no reason to change. Then, around 2016, he read an article in Harvard Business Review by Clay Christensen titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?”. The ideas within it greatly influenced how Dr. Graham manages his time between family and work.

Dr. Graham and his wife Deneene
Dr. Graham's sons Ethan and Nolan

“The article changed my life,” he says. “What I found profound was Christensen’s notion that you need to have a strategy for your life. Otherwise, you will use the maximum moments of your waking hours in developing your career to the neglect of your family, loved ones, and personal life. In short, we become over-invested in work and under-invested in our personal lives outside of work.”

Although Christensen, who is famous for his theory of disruptive innovation, looks at life through the lens of an economist, Dr. Graham thinks Christensen's ideas are applicable to almost everyone. One idea, for example, is the crucialness of developing authentic relationships.

“If your relationships are weak, the only way you can gain support or cooperation is through the use of power,” Dr. Graham says. “Said another way, if you're mainly relating to people through the use of ‘power tools,’ eventually those ‘power tools’ will become ineffective. Then what? This intuitively made sense to me because I believe we’ve all observed this dynamic in one or more families with children.”  

The overreaching nugget Dr. Graham takes from Christensen is that we need to invest in our relationships as much as we invest in professional accomplishment.

“Clay Christensen incremented corporate and personal finances worth millions of dollars with his theories,” says Dr. Graham. “But he realized that, in the end, this kind of success is not how we will measure our lives. We are much more likely to measure our lives by what we have given to others. And I believe he’s right. I believe that one of the most enduring measures of our own lives will be how much we’ve enriched the lives of others. The mechanism of relationships is the means by which human beings can change and enrich communities.”

Chris Bahnsen

Chris J. Bahnsen covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.