Interview with Sarah Schaeffer, MD
A Conversation with Sarah Schaeffer, Assistant Clinical Professor
Where was the photo on your desk taken and what does it depict?
The photo is of my wife and me on our wedding day at Brasada Ranch in Bend, Oregon. It's beneath a big bridge and what led us there is that we are two people who never pictured a perfect wedding. All we wanted was a place to celebrate with the people most important to us, good food and wine for everyone, and a photographer who could capture whatever happened over those several days. Flying and lodging the photographer and his assistant from San Francisco to Bend was by far our biggest extravagance but he got to know us and spent considerable time with us before the wedding so we were able to be ourselves. We were on our way back to the actual ceremony when we paused, laughing and joking with each other, and he caught that giddy moment.
What was a memorable image from your wedding ceremony and celebration?
For me, the most memorable thing was that after we were married, we came into the barn, which was lit with café lights and I remember soft yellows and sunset hues, and everyone standing and cheering. The best toast was given by my wife's sister, who has a PhD in Anthropology, and her words were so perfect; she obviously took considerable time to write a bilingual toast in English and Vietnamese celebrating the strong women in the family and welcoming me into the sisterhood of their family.
Who was your first role model? At what age and what about this person impressed you?
My father. He had a way of understanding and empathizing with people no matter who they were, where they came from or how well he knew them. He could connect with people who he was meeting for the first time, who he might otherwise not have had anything in common; age, upbringing, or position. That desire to be compassionate and connect with people impressed me and convinced me that I could be an agent for positive change in people's lives and left a lasting impression on me as to how I wanted to connect with people in my life. He is a sensitive soul and comes from a strong heritage of extroverts who have charisma and personality.
Did you ever have to ask yourself, "Why on earth did I…?" And what was the answer
I ask myself that a lot but, thankfully, not in big life decisions where I tend to be more judicious. I tend to be motivated by passion and driven by emotion so usually that sentence is, "Why did I say that or do that?" or "Why didn't I say that or do that?" And the answer is usually, "Well, I just felt like it!" and, for better or worse, that is me being genuine to myself. I recognize that that is how I innately respond to conflict or praise or anything that makes me passionate. To coexist in a world of other passionate people, I've learned to regulate myself, constantly striving to strike a balance between letting the passions that drive me toward being productive instead of counterproductive.
When you traveled these past few months, what was most important: the destination or the journey?
My summer travels were the culmination of a long journey: I had completed an achievement of residency and Chief Residency, I had earned and saved enough that I could travel, and I was fortunate enough to have a partner who could travel with me. I'd never had that opportunity before so it didn't matter so much where we were as that we were at that point of our lives. We were fortunate enough to have the time, health and money to be able to experience travel. There are two places, in particular, that I sometimes transport myself back to: Alaska, where we kayaked at sunrise in a sound surrounded by mountains and glaciers, and a small Zen garden in a temple in Kyoto where we sat cross-legged. Both were incredibly beautiful and peaceful moments—there is something about being surrounded by things so much bigger and longer standing than you. They evoke such a sense of gratitude and put things in perspective.
How do you go about making things happen? Are you a methodical planner or impulsive?
I am impulsive by nature, which means that I've had to learn to be a planner. Impulsive doesn't work well in Medicine. I am a big believer in the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, and I really think that once you know how people work and how they deal with things, it goes a long way toward understanding them in the work world. I am an ENFP: extrovert, intuitive, a feeler as opposed to a thinker, and someone who is more spontaneous than methodical. I don't organize well so I've had to learn in order to get things done and it sometimes takes me as long for me to develop an organizational framework as to actually get something done.
Share an anecdote that has become a favorite about something you were famous for in family lore.
One of my favorite memories is sitting on Shamu at SeaWorld, in San Antonio, when I was around eight. In my memory, I got selected as the lucky kid but my mom remembers it differently. She says that we got there late for some reason so we sat just outside of the splash zone, where people get wet when Shamu goes by, and I threw a fit and cried the entire time. A SeaWorld staffer took pity on my parents and asked if I wanted to ride Shamu. I instantly lit up, stopped crying, and enjoyed waving to the crowd.
Who might have you become if you had made other choices at any given point of your life. Do you ever dwell on "what if?"
I could have stayed in El Paso, in the same small border town with folks who look and speak and think largely like me, or I could move to a place far from everything I know and be surrounded by folks entirely different from me. That decision framed a lot of who I've become and opened me up to a world of experience that I wouldn't have had if I'd stayed in Texas.
Who is the Iron Chef in the family?
My dad does all the main cooking and meal preparing in the family but my mom bakes like nobody's business. Her homemade chocolate chip cookies are incredible and so is her chocolate mousse, which she makes every Christmas. Two years ago she taught us to make it, which was wonderful because now we can make it whenever we want and horrible because now we know what goes into it, and now we are the people who make it every Christmas. My parents ran a restaurant for a while, which was started by my great grandfather in 1925. It was called "The Coney Island" but it didn't sell Coney Island-style hot dogs; he sold chili cheese dogs and Mexican food.
Thank you, Sarah. This was delightful.