Remembering Dr. Lawrence R. Leiter: A medical pioneer in the SCV

Photo courtesy of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital
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Those who knew Dr. Lawrence R. Leiter well said he was one of most influential people who ever lived in the Santa Clarita Valley.  

Leiter, who died on Sept. 30, was described as hard-working, compassionate, very intelligent, and, to his children, a great and loving father.  

“He was just a very wise, non-judgmental father. But at the same time trying to guide you down the right path. He was very loving… very supportive of education… so always very supportive, encouraging an education, not just from a financial standpoint, but just from a growth standpoint,” said Leiter’s son, Greg. 

“My father was a very curious and creative man. Consequently, he loved to learn and instilled a passion for learning within us,” said his daughter, Candice. “My dad was learning things his entire life, curiosity makes life a place of wonder.” 

Leiter’s career began after he graduated from the California College of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, in 1961. The following year, he opened up his private practice in Santa Clarita and was an administrator of the precursor to Henry Mayo, which was a 20-bed facility known as “Santa Clarita Hospital.” 

When Leiter first arrived, the valley was still a burgeoning settlement with a population of approximately 3,000 – much of which consisted of farms and farmers. Greg said the move from Los Angeles to the Santa Clarita Valley was prompted by his mother, who came from a rural area herself.  

“My mom, being from sort of farm country in western Arkansas, said, ‘Why don’t we go out to a growing area, more rural where, you know, where they really respect the doctors and you can kind of start your own thing.’ So that’s what brought him out there,” said Greg. “The story goes that, I heard very consistently my whole life, was that when he came out of medical school and went out there and opened his practice, there was one or two older doctors that [died] within a few years. So my dad at a very young age, you know, he would have been in his early 30s, was the only doctor in Santa Clarita.” 

Greg said his father then went about recruiting other doctors to come to the area and to the new hospital. At the time, Leiter would have to frequently send patients to the San Fernando Valley – a dangerous, and often life-threatening trek, if the patient needed urgent care. It made more sense to treat patients locally, especially as the population began to grow.  

“He was a pioneer in that sense and the company that ultimately bought that hospital did it to have both the medical staff that he had organized, as well as employees and volunteers that were active in that first hospital all move to Henry Mayo when it opened in 1975,” said Roger Seaver, president and CEO of Henry Mayo. “He was a perfect gentleman to work with. He was a man of few words, but if he spoke, we all listened…  he just stood out as an obvious leader without really carrying a big stick, so to speak. He always influenced people positively.” 

Leiter’s children also said that he was a very humble man, even after achieving success in the practice.  

“Anybody that knows him would tell you that he could have lived in the nicest communities in Santa Clarita. He always wanted to not be flashy and not look like he had a lot of money, that wasn’t who he was,” said Greg. “He was just so well known by generations of people, being a family doctor… it was never about money.” 

Greg said his father would take calls at all hours of the day, on any day – holidays, weekends, etc. – and reminisced that at many breakfasts, lunches or dinners with his dad, it would be interrupted by a call. Whereas many doctors would charge for these types of calls from patients, Leiter never did. His devotion was to helping people, to selflessness, to caring for others without asking for anything in return.  

In addition to his duties at Henry Mayo, Leiter was also a clinical instructor at the UCLA School of Medicine and Northridge Hospital Family Practice Residency Program.  

“That was my dad, just always, always trying to help people,” said Greg. “Always trying to, you know, give people advice if he could in any way, was much more of a giver. Really selfless, not a taker… He didn’t want people to give a lot to him. But he [loved] to give a lot to people in the community.”  

In the midst of teaching and caring for the community, Leiter also found the time to help out local law enforcement. In 1978 he assisted the Reserve Deputy Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. Like today, the hills and open spaces surrounding the SCV were popular hiking spots and people would get injured and needed to be airlifted.  

“The reason he did that, you’ll see a lot of consistency here with my dad, he said that the sheriff’s needed people with medical training,” said Greg. “So they asked my dad to join this division of the sheriff’s which was called Search and Rescue. And if you’re not familiar, he would get calls in the middle of the night and he had learned how to rappel off mountains and all kinds of crazy stuff…. They needed my dad because of his medical background. I mean, he could easily just have said, ‘I’m not interested, there’s no money in that.’ It was a purely volunteer move, he might have gotten something little, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a money move.” 

Leiter’s hard work did not go unnoticed at Henry Mayo and in 1983, he became the CEO of the Family Medical Center. Following this he ended up on several committees and grew the admiration of anyone who worked under him.  

“He was an active member and served on almost all the different committees that were self-governing and there was always a moderate voice,” said Seaver. “When high levels of differences arise among physicians, he would be in the middle of the pro and con issues that might need discussion. So he always served a major role with the medical staff.” 

As the medical world entered the 21st century, Seaver said Leiter was, once again, a pioneer – advocating for the latest technologies available and making advances in digital record keeping at the hospital.  

“He wanted to lead the way on helping physicians adjust to the changes and of course depending on what decades you were trained in, and so on. It was easy if people were trained in med school, and it was hard for practitioners who had never had computerized electronic records and things like that,” said Seaver.  

As Leiter aged into his 90s, he refused to stop working – even as his health began to deteriorate. Although it may not seem like much, Leiter was given his own parking space at Henry Mayo – something that is not usually given to doctors.  

“I think most of us that have been here in the last 15 to 20 years have great memories of him how well that carries forward, I guess is still a challenge for us. To make sure we memorialize some of his contributions, you know, we had a small memorial. In his later years he had double surgery on his hips, so he got into a wheelchair and getting parking space became an issue so we did dedicated parking space for him,” said Seaver. “I would say that spoke to two of our traditions here: We never wanted to have special parking positions for doctors. Because there’s nothing worse than patients coming to a hospital to find all the parking spaces taken up by doctors, which makes it harder for them to get in and get their health care as they need it. So we don’t do that. But we did it for him. Both for his temporary needs to make sure there was a parking space when he came to work and also to honor him and for all the effort that he made here. So a pretty minor token to his memory. I’m sure we’ll be able to do better than that as we reconcile ourselves with his loss.” 

Leiter worked up until just a few months before his death. He was 94.        

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