Drawn to Medicine
He not only writes out the weird-sounding name so they can spell it correctly or look it up later, he draws them a picture. He maps out the gastrointestinal tract and shows, as precisely as he is able, what may be wrong and how he plans to address their problem.
When he hands them the paper, he’s more than explaining. He’s teaching.
“I’m a teacher every time I have an encounter with patients,” Dr. Schafer says. “If they understand the disease process or the procedure I’ll be performing, then they’re going to be better able to prepare and take care of themselves.”
The drawings work.
“I’ve had people come back eight to 10 years later and whip out those pictures I drew for them,” he says, chuckling. “They sure remember them.”
And they remember him.
Dr. Schafer was born in Omaha. His father, Edwin C. Schafer, was director of advertising and public relations at Union Pacific, and he was well known and admired throughout the city. The elder Schafer’s first son was destined to be his namesake. “They named me Edwin C. II,” he recalls, “because my mother did not want people calling me Eddie Jr.”
He had five siblings: Daniel, MD, an associate professor of internal medicine and adult hepatologist who works with the adult liver and small bowel transplantation team at The Nebraska Medical Center; Suzanne, a journalist who covers the Pentagon for the Associated Press and is married to former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer; Patty, who teaches at Westside Community Schools, and Peggy, an information technology manager at Tufts University in Boston, non-identical twins who Dr. Schafer says “are as different as night and day;” and Greg, an MD and internist in Columbus, Neb.
The family grew up near 38th and Martha Streets, just south of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital (now the VA Medical Center).
“We played baseball from sunrise to sunset when I was a kid,” he recalls. “We rode our bikes from our house down Deer Park Boulevard to Riverview Park, before it was the Henry Doorly Zoo, to play on the ball field, which is on the hill where the elephants are now.
“I remember when they built The Center shopping center. We watched them excavate the thing. That was when they were making 42nd Street four lanes from Dodge Street to the Interstate, which they were still building. That was great for us kids, because there were lots of dirt piles to ride our bikes on.”
He attended St. Adalbert’s Grade School and Mt. Michael High School in Elkhorn. A graduate of the College of St. Thomas (now the University of St. Thomas) in St. Paul, Minn., he attended St. Paul Seminary for one year after receiving his undergraduate degree in 1968.
Always fond of helping other people, he was encouraged by his father to study medicine. “Evidently, he thought I was smart enough,” he says.
A physiology class at Creighton University Medical School sparked an interest in gastroenterology. “My big choice seemed to be between being a surgeon or an internist,” says Dr. Schafer. “I was pulled both ways.”
He earned his medical degree from Creighton in 1974 and completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1979.
While in medical school, he got a part-time job feeding the research animals that were part of the liver study unit at the VA Hospital, a research project led by his uncle, Tony Barak, PhD, a biochemist, and Michael Sorrell, MD, for whom the new Center for Health Science Education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) is named.
The research he participated in led him to internal medicine and a focus on gastroenterology.
“When I decided, it was back before the advent of endoscopy,” he says. “Ultimately, I wound up with the best of both worlds. I got the intellectually-challenging elements of internal medicine, and endoscopy takes care of the frustrated surgeon in me.”
Dr. Schafer, 61, and his wife, Linda (Hansink) celebrate their 36th anniversary in June. They have three children: Michael, MD, a gastroenterologist and fellow at UNMC; Sarah, former chair of the English department at Millard North High School; and Joel, a financial manager. All live in Omaha.
Michael describes his father as a selfless person devoted to his work and his family.
“When he started out, he was one of the first practicing gastroenterologists in the city,” he recalls. “He was on call every other weekend and every other holiday. But when he was home, he was home.
“I appreciate that now more from a medical standpoint than I had before. When you get home after a long day, you want to kick back and relax; take a little time for yourself. Not him. He was focused on what we wanted to do. Whether it was play catch or help with our homework, he put us at the top of his list and put whatever he wanted to do at the bottom.”
Now that his children are grown, the elder Dr. Schafer and his wife have turned their attention to their grandchildren. “We went from having zero to having nine grandkids, including twins, in 5-1/2 years,” he says. “That’s a big change.”
Having grandchildren also led to a change in personal vehicles. A longtime fan of smaller cars, Dr. Schafer has switched to a larger sedan.
“I kind of had to,” he says, smiling. “I needed something I could fit three child safety seats in the back.”
Adjusting to change is a part of life. And the changes Dr. Schafer has seen in gastrointestinal (GI) medicine have been amazing.
“In the last 30 years, we’ve had to totally relearn medicine,” he says. “It’s 100 percent different than when I started – and all for the better. It’s been exciting to see it evolve.”
He estimates that when he began his career, 95 percent of all GI procedures were conducted in the hospital. “Now, I’d say between two-thirds and three-fourths are all done on an outpatient basis.”
Advances in endoscopy have led to better diagnoses and treatments, he says. Technology such as the SpyGlass Direct Visualization System, the first system that allows direct optical viewing and optically-guided biopsies of the bile duct and pancreas. Previously, only contrast negatives were possible.
Hospitals have changed, too.
“Back then, we had basically healthy individuals coming in to be hospitalized for something like an X-ray,” he says. “The patients who were in ICUs in those days would be on the regular floors today, and the patients in ICU now, well, they probably would have been dead.”
In his career, Dr. Schafer has held many titles and positions. A staff gastroenterologist at The Nebraska Medical Center, he has been president of Internal Medicine Associates and Midwest Gastro Intestinal Associates in Omaha, chief of staff at the former Clarkson Hospital and “chairman of every committee known to man.”
Among the honors he has received, he says the initial Physician of Distinction award as Clinical Educator bestowed by The Nebraska Medical Center two years ago “is one of which I’m most proud.”
He sees a day soon when he’ll likely switch to part-time work.
“Retirement will be nice,” he says. “I’ll be able to spend more time with Linda. But I’m not looking forward to it as much as I would be if I were sick of my job. I like my job. I like getting up every morning and going to work.
“When I retire, it won’t be because I hate my work. It’ll be because it’s time to let someone else do it.”
Until then, Dr. Schafer will continue to serve others and to teach, not just by example, but with a pad and a pen as well.
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