Dr. Ruben West: Turning Personal Challenges Into Opportunity
Ruben West barely had a moment to catch a breath in between patients. For shifts of 12 hours or more, Ruben and the surgical team worked on one patient after another. The Gulf War raged on beyond the evac hospital. There was no time clock. His shift ended when the last wounded soldier was wheeled out of the O.R.
Hour after hour, Ruben assisted the surgeon. As they closed up one patient the next was being wheeled in. He would drop his gown and gloves, don fresh ones, turn to his side and assist with one surgery, then repeat that cycle for as many hours as it took.
His body was fatigued after these shifts but his mind sprang to life in the quiet afterwards. “A lot of times,” he says, “you can get great ideas in the most difficult situations.” In this particularly difficult situation, he realized this work as a surgical assistant was what he’d like to do when he returned home.
Ruben could have returned home, transitioned out of the military, and studied nursing that would lead him to assist in surgeries. It was the only available path to do what he wanted to do. But anyone who knows him, or meets him just once, quickly realizes he is not the type to stroll down a path simply because it exists. If there is no path that takes him to the destination or outcome he seeks, he will simply blaze his own, and people will follow.
The medical field did not have a profession designated as a professional surgical assistant. Instead of seeing this gap as a problem or a reason to abandon his desire to recreate the profession he’d practiced in the military, Ruben set about establishing it in the civilian world.
It was an impossible goal. Everyone knew it – and told him so. They simply could not understand why Ruben thought one person – an unknown individual – could do something as momentous as this. Ruben heard them all. He respected their opinions. He also disagreed with them.
He may have laughed along with the medical students and residents who saw him studying surgical procedure books in the library, but the joke was not on him. “What they didn’t understand is – I’m a leader. They’re a follower. There’s nothing wrong with that, we don’t all reach the mountain the same way,” he says, “ They followed a path other people had set. I’m creating a new path for other people to follow.”
It was not an easy path to blaze. It took ten years to make happen.
But while others saw only the impossibility or the futility, Dr. Ruben West saw opportunity and purpose.
He knew there were other people like him, uniquely qualified to fill this profession, and they were trapped in the man-made rut of scheduled shifts, salary caps, and rules. He also knew that the very field he was working to expand was not created by Divine Intervention. If Florence Nightingale created the nursing profession, Ruben West could create the surgical assistant profession. So when people told him he couldn’t do it, he’d ask them, “Who’s going to stop me?”
Asked where his conviction comes from, Ruben explains he is a culmination of his family, especially his mother. In an era laced with inequality, when many women were too fearful of repercussions to speak out against inequality in the workplace, Ruben’s mother stood up and spoke out.
Warmth and admiration pour through his voice as Ruben describes how his mother had the fortitude to withstand being ostracized by other women and attempts to intimidate her into silence. But his mother stood her ground, insisting that since she was training men to fill a certain position, she too was qualified to fill that same position.
“Why don’t you shut up? Why don’t you sit down?” other women begged or sometimes insisted of his mother. Undeterred, his mother drew upon her own conviction and faith and won the lawsuit that changed company policy and created new opportunities for all women – even the ones who’d spoken out against her.
“I learned something from her, “ Ruben says of his mom. Creating change will not always be popular. Sometimes people prefer to exist in a known hell than to explore unknown heavens, as one of his favorite quotes says.
With his mother as a role model and four uncles who are Bishops, Ruben developed his own strong sense of faith. His faith transcends one church or one religion. Instead, it is a faith that a Creator created us all with a purpose. Our purpose is to create, and he is fulfilling that purpose.
Ten years is a long time. During these years, as he worked toward creating the surgical assistant profession, Ruben continued to create new paths for himself and others to climb their own mountains.
Before he earned a Ph.D. and became Dr. West, Ruben earned a Masters in Criminal Justice. His emphasis was on Law Enforcement and Juvenile Corrections. At first blush, the job he was offered seemed perfect. He was excited to begin work as a supervisor at a private juvenile correctional facility.
The excitement was short-lived.
Much to his dismay, Ruben realized his “supervisor” role more closely resembled a babysitting job. He wanted to do more than oversee bedtimes. He wanted to work with youth, not just monitor them, but regulations were strict and his influence was strictly limited.
“I didn’t get a degree to babysit but watch this!”
A smile overtakes Dr. West’s face and the words come even faster as he explains that he’d also studied martial arts in this time. Why couldn’t he combine his passion and talent for both fields into one?
The first doubters and naysayers trickled in and the rest followed in a strong swoosh:
“There are others, better than you, who failed at this – why would you think you can do it?”
“How are you going to do it?”
“Ruben you’re crazy.”
Each naysayer sang their song, creating a ballad of doubt Dr. Ruben West refused to sing along to.
“Watch this,” he says again. His eyes dance and his whole body projects excitement, as he laughs and says he’d rather be a one-hit wonder than wonder if he could ever have a hit.
He’s packed with quotable quotes. They pour out of him almost on their own. But Dr. Ruben West doesn’t just spout inspiration and sound bites. He lives and feels the passion and possibility behind everything he teaches and speaks about.
It’s a simple premise, really. He saw a need, knew he had the skill and talent to fulfill it, and set about doing so. “I didn’t try to figure out the end, “ he says, “ just the next possible step.”
He is a 7th Degree Black Belt. He holds a masters in Criminal Justice. He is packed with faith and potential, and he knew how to address a need that was right in front of him. He went to work.
He began teaching students at a community center. Possibility. Self-control. Concentration. Discipline. Confidence. The kids he taught often lacked all of those traits and skills. Dr. West threw himself into teaching martial arts and encompassing those areas he knew were so sorely needed in the lives of his students.
His classes grew. Parents began approaching him, telling him of their child that was being bullied, or had behavioral problems, or was struggling in life. Dr. West knew all of those factors played a hand in the behavior of children who landed in the criminal justice system. With martial arts as his conduit, he began influencing these kids the way he’d tried to influence those.
With a strong community and an inspired following, Dr. Ruben West opened his own school. That school still operates today, 21 years later. So strong was his influence on the families he touched, that he was nationally recognized. A stroll through the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame inductees includes Dr. West, who was inducted in 2005 as Instructor of the Year.
Awards and honors are valued and appreciated. Audiences jumping to their feet after he speaks is moving. But it’s the realization of the direct impact his life has had on people that moves him the most – like the message that appeared in his inbox one day.
Dr. West couldn’t recall this student. He taught so many, and this was so long ago, that he can not remember them all, specifically. But they remember him.
She’s a grown woman who lives on the Marshall Islands. Today she teaches at-risk youth the very principles she was once taught as a student in his school. Her message went on to thank him for all he’d done for her. She told him about a paper she’d written in the fifth grade, when she’d been asked who her hero was, and named him. “If I can just help one person the way you helped me,” she wrote, “It will all be worth it.”
This, says Dr. West, is why we all have to stand up, because we have no idea who our message is for. He’s never met any of those children on the Marshall Islands. But they are all learning critical life lessons and skills because he followed through on his vision and drive, and opened up a martial arts school two decades ago.
Today Dr. West is an author, an international speaker, and an elite corporate trainer and personal coach.
He helps corporations thrive by offering a fresh interpretation of change strategies. He does the same with individual students seeking to discover their intended method of delivering their own message in life.
Dr. West exemplifies the ripple effect one life can have. His successful creation of the surgical assistant profession now has its own curriculum. Thousands of people now have greater leverage in their own lives because of the opportunity to thrive in that career. His martial arts school sparked fires that thousands of people used to ignite their own flames, and now pass on to countless others. His message is heard around the world in keynote talks and corporate events, and his individual students learn how to harness their own message, to fulfill their own purpose.
None of his achievements have been easy. He had every potential to fail and every excuse not to even try. Yet the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity he saw. Struggle, adversity, and doubt should never outweigh purpose.
The American Dream is alive and well for those willing to work for it. Dr. West knows this, and he’s doing his part to help others turn their own American Dream into a reality