A transformational gift
A legacy of opportunity for future physicians
Retired radiologist Michael Lehtola, MD ’76, aims to leave a legacy of opportunity for future physicians through an estate gift honoring his parents and his alma mater
here are two entities Michael Lehtola, MD ’76, credits for his success in medicine and in life: his parents and the University of Florida.
His parents were roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work-hard, go-to-church-on-Sundays and put-your-children-first kind of folks. His father, Albert — the son of Finnish immigrants — toiled each day for 40 years as a machinist at a canning company in the Tampa Bay area while his mother, Dorothy — the youngest of nine children — labored to keep the house and her two boys in line.
When Lehtola showed an interest in music, his parents brought home a second-hand upright piano and enrolled him in piano and clarinet lessons. When he opted to attend UF on a music scholarship, they sang his praises. When he set his sights on California upon completing medical school and radiology residency training at UF, they championed his goals.
After a fulfilling 30-year career as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California, Lehtola has decided to leave a legacy that honors his parents and his alma mater through an estate gift to the UF College of Medicine. The gift will support initiatives such as medical student scholarships and Emerging Pathogens Institute research, as well as the establishment of an endowed fellowship and chair in radiology and a professorship for an assistant or associate dean of medical education.
“The University of Florida changed my life,” he says. “I could’ve gone to another college and could’ve met different people and my life could’ve been entirely different.”
Closest to his heart is the tribute he’s leaving to the ones who brought him into the world. The Albert and Dorothy Lehtola Medical Scholarship will provide a full ride for medical students who are the first in their families to graduate from college. The gift is a symbol of opportunity for generations of future physicians, telling them there is someone who believes in their potential the way a parent might believe in their child.
“Ours wasn’t an affluent family in those days, but we were never in need of anything,” he says. “My parents always did their best to not only provide the essentials but to give me the opportunity to pursue my interests. That encouragement and support allowed me to attend UF.”
As a teenager, Lehtola had a mind for math and music, so he set his path on becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. At UF, he split his time between hitting the books and marching with the Gator band. During his sophomore year, a conversation with his roommate — an aspiring neurosurgeon — swayed Lehtola to pursue a career in medicine.
His medical school days were defined by challenging work and rewarding connections with faculty and classmates. During his internal medicine internship at UF Health Shands Hospital, he recalled his experience working as an orderly in the radiology department of Tampa General Hospital during summer breaks from college and decided to pivot into radiology, a field marked by a strong knowledge of anatomy and the mystery that comes with helping patients you only get to meet through scans of organs and bones.
After residency, driven by the goal of beginning a nuclear medicine fellowship at San Francisco General Hospital, the Florida native swapped the warm, serene Gulf waters of his childhood for the cool, crashing Pacific waves of California.
Lehtola’s favorite part about working as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente was spending each day learning from fellow physicians and teaching them in return. His career highlight came during his last year of practice in 2009, when colleagues recognized him with a Career of Caring Award for his work ethic, reliability and congeniality.
In retirement, Lehtola enjoys cooking, trying new restaurants and traveling. Nearly every day, he perches in front of his piano and plays while looking out onto the San Francisco skyline. Upon his mother’s death, he brought her sewing machine to California and has become fond of quilting, a hobby that continues to connect him to his mom.
Though he loves California, he gets nostalgic about Gainesville from time to time and keeps his admissions letter from the UF College of Medicine in a frame. Still, 50 years since stepping foot on UF’s campus, he feels a sense of gratitude.
“There’s never been a doubt in my mind that I would leave a legacy to UF to say thank you for how the College of Medicine transformed my life,” Lehtola says. “This gift is also in memory of my parents and the opportunities they made available to me. They will be remembered in a way that’s positive and supports the goals of medical students who can provide the best service to society. I can’t think of a better way to honor them.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue of the Doctor Gator newsletter.