Steve Morgan: Called to Science and Service
It’s impossible to tell Steve Morgan’s story without mentioning the ‘mudbugs.’ In March, when his 74 year-old grandmother Mary was in Rochester for Match Day, she happened to hear that the URMC public relations writer working on her grandson’s story had never tasted the Louisiana delicacy.
A little over a month later, in Rochester once more to see her grandson accept his medical degree, she greeted the writer with a warm hug and 10 pounds of home-cooked crawdads—complete with corn and potatoes—that she had singlehandedly carried in a cooler on the plane.
It’s the kind of gesture that typifies the selfless generosity of a close-knit family from the Louisiana bayou who faithfully carried each other through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and never stops seeing the bright side of life.
“You don’t get any further south of New Orleans than Gray, Louisiana,” says Morgan, raised primarily by his grandmother, grandfather and mother, while his dad, Steve Sr., worked the oil rigs in the Gulf Coast, and later, off the coast of Nigeria. “You don’t even think there’s land where we are, but that’s where we are.”
Morgan was only 15 when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and remembers seeing the walls and windows of his grandparents’ home bend and break, and later slept in tents with his family in 100-degree heat and total darkness. He often kept a gun by his side to protect against people trying to steal the family’s generator—vital to pumping water out of the basement and keeping their food cold.
“In our family, the grandparents make the decisions, and they wanted to stay with the house, so we all stayed,” recalls Morgan. “But it was rough, it was chaos, and it took a long time for any help to come. Bourbon Street and the tourist areas were rebuilt quickly, but most of the African- American communities never recovered and some are still deserted. It was a tragedy I didn’t think could happen in the United States.”
Always interested in science, Morgan’s high school science project explored planting mangroves to help strengthen the Louisiana levee system. He later expanded on the internationally-recognized project at Xavier University of Louisiana, growing hundreds of plants in a greenhouse and planting them with other students by boat.
“I love science, but I also want to find ways to help people,” says Morgan, who was nicknamed “Weepee” by his grandmother for his tendency to cry easily as a child. “I have a soft heart, and when I see people struggling it affects me very deeply. In my community it was just a way of life that you give whatever you can spare, and whatever ability you have, to help your neighbor.” Both he and his younger sister were encouraged to get a college education.
“My family members were not rich people and didn’t have college degrees, but they were hard-working, had a very strong faith, and really supported education,” says Morgan, whose mother worked as a school custodian, cafeteria worker, and substitute teacher to keep tabs on him and his sister in school.
Morgan’s high school performance and accomplishments were so good that he earned acceptance to the Air Force Academy, but when he failed a last-minute medical exam, he had to change plans. The academy wrote recom - mendation letters so he could squeeze into Xavier University’s pre-medical program at the last minute. “Xavier turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Morgan, who took advantage of UR’s Early Assurance Program, and spent time volunteering and doing research with various physicians to prepare for medical school. “I met my wife at Xavier, got my degree, and got into medical school in Rochester.”
But on the day after he and his wife, Chante, graduated from Xavier, they learned the surprising news that Chante was pregnant.
“Here we were, excited to start medical school in Rochester, and we didn’t know how we were going to do it now with a baby on the way,” he recalls. “I thought we would have to wait and re-apply. But the admissions people put together a package that enabled Chante to work a paid fellowship for the first year until the baby came, and start school a year later. They really cared about us, and that’s when I knew we were in the right place.”
Morgan also joined the U.S. Army Reserves to help support his family and get health care benefits. In addition to attending regular required training, he spent one weekend a month at Fort Drum, N.Y. After completing residency, he’ll serve a four-year commitment, with 90 days of active duty every two years.
“It wasn’t easy, but the reserves helped provide for my family and I also gained incredible military EMT experience,” says Morgan, whose goal is to blend his emergency medicine knowledge and military background so that he can one day direct emergency medical services (paramedic, firefighter, SWAT) in his hometown.
But beyond being an army reservist in medical school, and a husband and father to Jeremiah (now 4), during his time in Rochester, Morgan also transformed the SMD’s Street Outreach program into a broad-reaching mobile unit, and along the way, earned a master’s degree from the Simon School of Business. Over four years, he also initiated, and completed, volunteer medical experiences in Ethiopia (with Richard Hodes, MD (’82M), in Costa Rica, and most recently in the Bahamas.
“I’m one of those people who sets his sights on something and won’t give up until I see it through,” says Morgan, whose exemplary leadership of the Street Outreach program, serving Rochester’s homeless community, helped earn him a national award for humanitarianism and an MD with Distinction in Community Health. “I don’t take ‘no’ very easily. I have a lot of courage, and if there’s a way to do something, I’m going to find it.”
At Case Western University Hospital, Morgan hopes to oversee a mobile unit to serve Cleveland’s homeless community, similar to what he ran in Rochester, but it will respond to emergency calls and include more primary care, house-checks and vaccinations. The program, and the opportunity to do an EMS fellowship, were key reasons he chose Case Western for his residency. He says the school “went above and beyond” to recruit him and Chante, who will finish her medical degree there.
“With the homeless unit, I’ll be going to even rougher neighborhoods in Cleveland than in Rochester,” he says. “But it’s easier for me to do because of my experience. Working with underserved populations is about building trust and making connections, and I think I’ve been called to do that.”