12 May 2015
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A Flash of Insight

For ER doctor Louis B. Cooper, the 9/11 attacks inspired the aha moment that transformed him from financier to physician.
by Robert S. Benchley

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When American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the bright, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, it set off a chain of dark events that would kill 3,000 people and change forever the way many Americans thought about their safety, their place in the world, and what they should be doing with their lives.

Louis B. Cooper (MBA 1988) was among them. Until earlier in the year, he had been managing partner at Anvil Capital Management, a hedge fund he had launched a year prior following a successful 12-year investment-banking career at Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. The fund’s early performance, however, had not been impressive. It was the height of the dot-com frenzy, and Cooper was betting against the dot-coms. Although he was hedged by long positions in cheap, cash-flow-producing natural resources companies, his bets were not panning out. He had begun to lose faith in the rationality of the market and closed his fund.

Next-step options, such as a CFO or director of corporate development position, filled his head as he left the top-floor co-op of the Brooklyn Heights town house where he and his wife lived. The home, which had a private roof garden, offered picture-postcard views of the World Trade Center less than a mile away.

Cooper, who has a strong artistic bent, spent many of his off hours working in glass and teaching novice glassblowers. Leaving home that morning, he headed north to a studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, across the East River from the Twin Towers. Hearing the news of the first plane strike on the radio, he stepped outside in time to see the second plane fly into the South Tower and within 90 minutes both structures collapse.

It didn’t take long for the prevailing winds to begin carrying smoke, ash, and debris toward Brooklyn. The smell of smoke remained in the air for weeks as charred pieces of office documents and personal effects drifted down onto his rooftop garden.

“I remember spending long moments staring out of our windows toward the plumes that continued to rise from Ground Zero,” says Cooper. “I questioned why I felt so helpless and useless at that moment. I wanted to be of service, but I wasn’t sure how I could add value.”

Primed to act, but lacking direction: for Cooper, it was unfamiliar territory. A “third-generation Brooklyn boy,” he was the son of a movie executive who spent most of his career working in Europe. Cooper grew up on the go, living in more than a dozen cities in the United States, Norway, Italy, England, and France, where he attended high school in Paris. When it was time for college, he returned home to attend the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.

“Having grown up as an expat, I had become a student of how we were viewed in the world,” says Cooper. “I was very proud of what my country had done in support of freedom and democracy, and I also felt I owed a debt of service. Annapolis Americanized me.”

After graduating, he served as an officer aboard a specially configured, nuclear-powered submarine, a “spook boat” that was engaged in covert operations. He found his naval service rewarding, but when his five years of active duty were up, it was time to move on.

“I thought that being an American had a number of dimensions to it,” says Cooper. “I had explored the military; that left the remaining two pillars of power and influence—business and politics. I applied to, and was accepted by, HBS, the ‘Annapolis of capitalism.’ I decided that I still had much to learn about being an American, and HBS was the ideal next step in my journey.”

What surprised Cooper most was how much he picked up from his classmates.

“As a military officer, I had a very different background from someone who had worked, say, at Procter and Gamble,” he says. “We learned from each other, and that helped broaden my perspective.”

As an investment banker, Cooper enjoyed using the resources of large corporations to build new businesses, and he tried to identify opportunities where he personally could make a big difference. Watching the smoke rise from Ground Zero, however, he knew that once again it was time to move on. That’s when his aha moment occurred.

“I had drawn up a balance sheet of my personal assets and liabilities,” says Cooper. “I had been successful in two professions—nuclear submarines and investment banking—in which success required a combination of technical and interpersonal skills. I had a long-standing interest in medicine, dating back to my high school years, but I had put it off twice to pursue other career options. I realized then that medicine required the same skill sets, and it also represented a return to service—a very personal form of service.”

Cooper took a job as a research assistant in a molecular biology laboratory at New York University Medical Center. In his spare time, he volunteered at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, studied for the MCAT, and applied to medical schools. Two years later, he entered Weill Cornell Medical College, followed by a residency program in emergency medicine at NYU/Bellevue Hospitals. He served for three years at Long Island College Hospital, where he held positions that included site director for SUNY Downstate’s Emergency Medicine Residency Program and assistant director of the Emergency Department at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, before moving to his current position as attending physician in the Emergency Department at New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. Through this work, he has satisfied the call to service he felt after 9/11.

“Emergency medicine is the profession that sees people in the first moments of their illness,” he says. “It is also probably the most creative specialty, in that people arrive completely undifferentiated, without a diagnosis. Your job is to save life and limb, and come up with a diagnosis quickly. You have to do this with many patients, simultaneously. It is the only profession dealing with all ages, both genders, and all problems, medical or surgical. It gives you a feeling of ultimate competence. There are easier ways to make money as a physician, but none are more satisfying than helping people in their time of need.”

Which brings Cooper to his personal mission: “I’m trying to make the world a better place, one patient at a time,” he says. “I’m changing myself in the process. I’m investing in my own humanity, rather than accumulating physical assets.”

Cooper believes his work as a physician has a strong interrelationship with his ongoing artistic endeavors, which currently focus on figurative painting in oils. “My day-to-day interactions in the ER inform my art, and that grounds me,” he says. “Dealing with the dualities of sickness and health, life and death, and hope and despair makes me both a better human being and a better doctor.”

And although Cooper claims he never looks back, he admits that pulling the plug on his hedge fund when he did was premature.

“In hindsight, if we had stayed with our strategy, we would have made a fortune during the ensuing market crash,” he says. “I’m glad we didn’t, because if we had succeeded I would still be on Wall Street and not in medicine today.”

Cooper’s forward-looking approach doesn’t exclude further adventures, either. He is passionate about food and often jokes that his next move will be to attend culinary school.

“It is said that a man’s life has three stages—one to learn, one to earn, and one to serve,” says Cooper. “I’m already pursuing the third stage of my life. But I’m planning to live to be 100, so I still have the second half and perhaps a few more careers out there.”

Photo by Dan Demetriad

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