Driven to Do More
Published on 13 October 2022
Ronald Graham, B.S. ’78, is not one to rest on his laurels, and his incredible career is evidence of that. From working in small Midwestern hospitals to managing hundreds of hospital pharmacies across the country to becoming vice president of supply chain solutions at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Graham has been a champion of expanding access to health care through novel approaches and out-of-the-box problem solving.
Though determined to become a biochemist, Graham eventually gave in to his mother’s insistence to pursue pharmacy. While in high school, he took a job stocking shelves at the local drug store and "bugged the heck out of the pharmacist" with questions of how the medications worked and what they were for — to which the pharmacist replied, "just take the package insert off and study for yourself." Graham did just that. From then on, he was hooked and applied to St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
With his degree in hand, Graham spent the early parts of his career in the Midwest working in small hospital pharmacies, until he took a position with Owen Healthcare, now Cardinal Health Inc., a third-party contractor that assisted hospitals in managing their pharmacy operations.
A lifelong learner with a natural ability to recognize the opportunities to apply transferable skills, Graham climbed his way up within Owen Healthcare. He moved around the United States and continued to increase his impact on health care and health systems throughout the country. While managing hundreds of hospital pharmacies, he assessed financials, profit and loss statements, balance sheets and even oversaw the integration of The Joint Commission standards into the everyday workflow of the pharmacies he managed.
"By that time, as a company, we were managing about 400 hospital pharmacies, and when you’re getting surveyed every three years, you get to know your surveyors down to the point of knowing who liked jelly donuts and how they took their coffee," Graham laughed. "But what we were focused on was promoting a standard and expectation of excellence that was sustainable and a part of our everyday functions. So when The Joint Commission would arrive, it was just another event for our pharmacy staff and not a time to panic."
As a student, Graham was active in the Delta Sigma Theta fraternity, but what he was most struck by was the incredible faculty who guided him through his pharmacy education.
"So many professors come to mind when I think back to my time as a student at St. Louis College of Pharmacy," Graham said. "Dr. [Leonard] Naeger [B.S. ’63, M.S. ’65, Ph.D.] was not only a great instructor, but he was a really great guy. To unwind and grab a bite, most of us students would go to Tom’s just off of campus and cozy up to the bar with a drink and burger, and then suddenly you would turn to your other side and there would be Dr. Naeger right there doing the same. It was really special to get to interact with your professors in that way — not to say his exams were easy!"
Graham fondly remembers the fretting that surrounded Naeger’s antibiotics test, known by some as "the test of the year."
"As a student, I worked at DePaul Hospital on Kingshighway in St. Louis, before it became SSM Health DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton, and I was fortunate to have a classmate working alongside me," Graham shared. "While we were working, we would play ‘stump the chump’ and ask each other questions about various antibiotics, so when it came time for the antibiotics test, it was no big deal. In fact, I received the only perfect score on that test in the class. Quizzing each other while working in the pharmacy made it simple because you are in the work environment and actively applying that knowledge."
With such a dynamic and impactful career that has taken him across the country, Graham credits the support of his wife and high school sweetheart, Susey, and two children, Erin and Drew, that allowed him to be successful and fulfill his duty to always push the envelope, and sometimes take that scary leap into unfamiliar territory.
"From a pharmacy perspective, you’re coming out of school with an excellent knowledge base," Graham said. "You’ve gone through the clinical programs and have observed the reasoning and engaged with the analytics and differential diagnosis process, which is all applicable to any part of business. I think sometimes people are afraid to take that leap and go after something different, but when you don’t push yourself, you don’t always recognize when there’s an opportunity knocking. Make your career and education an active process, keep those networks and relationships strong, in your personal and professional life, and when the opportunity presents, don’t be afraid to be a leader."