Delos “Toby” Cosgrove was born in 1940, well before we had a good handle on dyslexia and how to treat it. None the less, he became a renouned cardiac surgeon. In June, 2004, he started a new career: at the age of 64, he is starting on another career: the leader of the Cleveland Clinic.
From C's and D's to Clinic's helm Wednesday, June 09, 2004 Diane Solov Plain Dealer Reporter (dyslexia topics mostly)
"I've thought for a long time that there was another thing for me to do in my life, something important, but I didn't know what it was," Cosgrove said. "I've been searching for it for a while."
Cosgrove is a cardiac surgeon of international renown. He has pioneered such procedures as mitral valve repairs. He is an accomplished inventor, with 18 patents, and a relentless workhorse, counting 700 surgeries last year an average of more than 13 a week.
Cosgrove's resolve is typical of his life story, which took him from a student who struggled for C's and D's to the top of the most prestigious rung in medicine.
He credits his innovative bent to dyslexia, a reading disorder that he has come to regard as a gift. "We're not very good at the scholastic stuff, but we see other things that are different," he said. "And that's a big advantage." Cosgrove's story is featured in Shaywitz's book, "Overcoming Dyslexia," which was published last year.
In a telephone interview, Shaywitz said keen intelligence is often a hallmark of dyslexia and predicted Cosgrove's qualities will set his leadership at the Clinic apart. "There's a great deal to suggest that people who are dyslexic are not going to be your rote learners or bean counters," Shaywitz said. "They are going to be the people to think outside of the box, to have vision, to move things forward. His vision, imagination and fortitude are going to move the Cleveland Clinic to an even higher level than anyone can imagine."
At the Clinic, Cosgrove's inventiveness so far has manifested itself in myriad innovations for surgical procedures. His unique view of the work allowed him to spy a solution for a flexible clamp in a bicycle gear and to see an embroidery hoop as inspiration for a ring used to repair heart valves.
In surgery, he said, dyslexia is an advantage because it favors spatial relationships.
Cosgrove didn't know he was dyslexic until he was 32, when he read the New York Times aloud to a teacher he was dating. As he struggled to pronounce some of the words, she put a name to the learning difficulties he had faced since he was a young boy.
These days, Cosgrove can rely on his assistants for help with spelling and sentence structure. But in his youth, a mix of serendipity, moxie and determination helped him jump one hurdle to the next Cosgrove struggled in public schools in his hometown of Watertown, N.Y., and studied hard for D's in college French at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., his father's alma mater.
He did so poorly on the standardized tests required for medical admission that he credits special circumstances for getting into the University of Virginia's medical school, the only one of 13 schools that accepted his application.
At medical school, he was no academic performer, but he thrived in the clinical work. In his senior year, during a clinical rotation at Boston Children's Hospital, a legendary surgeon there took a shine to Cosgrove when he learned that he spent two summers in the early 1960s on the crew of the Nefertiti, a Boston-based yacht in the America's Cup races, starting in the bowels of the boat and becoming known as the "sewer man" a name that stuck for those in subsequent America's Cup races.
He landed an internship at the University of Rochester and a year of residency training before he was shipped off to a hospital in Da Nang, Vietnam. There, he earned his stripes as a surgeon and a soldier winning a Bronze Star for his medical work, a medal from the Vietnam government for a weekly clinic he ran on the side, and an air medal for flying combat missions to keep busy.
Cosgrove returned stateside with a newfound confidence that provoked him to apply to top residency programs to finish his training, including Massachusetts General. He was rejected, but wouldn't take "no" for an answer and pestered the department chairman's secretary. His persistence and a brief phone call from the legendary surgeon he had met in medical school got him in.
When he finished his training there, he was told he was No. 13 in a residency group of 13. In the end, as he decided on heart surgery, he became chief resident at Boston Children's Hospital. Then he spent six months unemployed, writing a book on heart surgery before a letter from Loop arrived in 1975 offering him a job. He went to the Clinic and opted to stay, despite an open offer from Harvard.