When he's not in scrubs, Thomas Rahlfs, M.D., is apt to be wearing a Japanese hakama with a traditional katana at his side, reminiscent of a samurai warrior. For Rahlfs, department chair for Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, martial arts is more than a hobby. It's a way of life.
Born in Midland, Texas, Thomas Rahlfs, M.D., knew from an early age he wanted to be a doctor after reading Doctor Dolittle stories in the third grade.
But he also was drawn to martial arts following a trip to Japan with the Boy Scouts in 1971 for the 13th World Scout Jamboree.
"I was fortunate to watch martial art master Mas Oyama give a demonstration with his karate students," Rahlfs says. "That's what lit the fire in me. It looked really cool."
Rahlfs found a way to combine his interests when he joined Duke University's karate club while earning his bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, in biomedical engineering.
He moved to Houston for medical school, anesthesia training and clinical residency with Baylor College of Medicine and accepted his first faculty appointment with Baylor in 1986. He went on to earn Baylor's Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching based on the consensus of residents he supervised at Ben Taub Hospital.
From Golden Apple to global winner
Karate became such an influence in Rahlfs' life that at one point he explored the relationship between Western medicine and the traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture for pain control.
Over the years, he quietly earned advanced black belt degrees in the karate style of Matsumura Seito Shorin-ryu and began teaching students in a dojo (martial arts training room) built above his home garage. He presently holds a kyoshi nanadan (seventh-degree black belt) in karate and renshi rokudan (sixth level of proficiency) in iaido, the martial arts discipline of drawing the sword and cutting in one fluid movement. Both are professional teaching-level degrees.
"If I need to, I can lead a class in Japanese, but my vocabulary is limited to 400-500 words," he says.
Rahlfs remains a student too, continuously honing his martial arts skills through instructors, called sensei, in Colorado and Japan. One sensei introduced him to kenjutsu, a martial art based on the sword-fighting techniques of samurai warriors in the battlefield.
The concentration needed to handle the sharply bladed sword captured his attention.
"The pipe organ is the king of instruments. The lion is the king of the jungle. The katana is the king of bladed weapons," he says with a smile. "When I realized a sword was involved in martial arts, I became really interested in it."
Another sensei, Furuoka Masaru, instilled in him the mental control and spiritual objective of Japanese swordsmanship, particularly as it applies to iaido, which involves sword-wielding movements called kata and kumitachi.
After years of practice in a form of iaido called Hiken Muso-ryu iaigirido, Rahlfs began advancing in Japanese appraisal tournaments known as shinsas.
In 2002, at a shinsa in Tokyo, he was part of an American contingent that bested other martial artists from around the world to earn the top scores from a panel of distinguished Japanese examiners. Rahlfs himself was recognized with the jushou, or overall championship. The Japanese participants weren't particularly thrilled to have been outscored by the foreigners, Rahlfs recalls.
The secret to his skill
Rahlfs continues to travel to Japan to perform in front of the shinsa judges, and he'll attempt to advance to the nanadan, or seventh level of iaido proficiency, in the coming months.
To reach that level, he'll have to demonstrate ultimate concentration on the day of the shinsa, performing Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu movements in the morning and Hiken Muso-ryu iaigirido cutting techniques in the afternoon.
Someone who understands the mental dexterity required for this task is Rahlfs' wife, Laura. The two met in a karate dojo, and she's practiced iaido alongside him for more than two decades.
"We trained together for 14 years before we had our daughter," he says.
The best advice about martial arts he's received along the way? With calm conviction, he says, "Don't ever stop."
This story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly employee publication.