Interview with Stephanie Rennke, MD

A Conversation with Stephanie Rennke, Associate Clinical Professor

Your surname, Rennke, is unusual. Where did it originate and what can you share of its history?

SRRennke is a German name, very uncommon. I don’t know its meaning but right before World War II, my grandfather, who was a Social Democrat, was the manager of a printing company and part of the political climate before 1932. The Social Democrats were the leading political party in opposition to Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, best known at the time as the Hitler Party. He was briefly incarcerated and, when he was freed in 1933, fled just before Hitler took power. At that time, he could either go to South Africa or South America, so he took his newlywed wife, my grandmother, to South America, to Valparaiso in Chile. My uncles were all born in Chile, which is a very culturally rich and diverse country but separated and segregated into cultural and political groups. For many years, there was an enclave of Germans, the pre- and post-war Germans separated by class and political beliefs.

Can you share an anecdote about your family that you treasure?

No one anecdote per se but here is our family history: I am a third generation medical practitioner. My parents met in medical school when my father was tutoring my mother. My maternal grandfather was a surgeon and went to med school with Salvador Allende who was assassinated in 1973. In the 1970s, many of my parents’ friends, who were also in medical school, were killed or disappeared; they were known as “The Missing” or “Los Desaparecidos.” I remember as a child between 6-14, visiting Chile for about four months each year under Pinochet and seeing guards and having intense fear. I understood and appreciated at a very early age what my parents went through to come to this country. In l973, because of the situation under Pinochet, history repeated itself when my parents left for Germany where my father had a one-year fellowship. Later, when they came to the US, my mother spoke only Spanish and German, and learned English at the same time as she started in a brand new residency, psychiatry—all this as a new mother. During that time, just in a new faculty position, my father sewed all of my clothes when we grew up.

If you were to offer one bit of advice about what makes a relationship work, what might that be?

My father always said that one shouldn’t try to change another person, one must enjoy and appreciate who they are. If you try to change them, that’s where conflict arises and communication breaks down. In my experience, it’s better to work within that dynamic both personally and professionally.

One of your areas of specialization has been with the geriatric patient population. What draws you to their care and needs?

Geriatric patients are incredibly complex and have so many needs, and I’m drawn to them because of all the hazards they face. They are so hardy and have such great stories, and I really enjoy working with a population where I can manage the entirety of their needs as a patient: medical conditions, social issues, caregiver supports, and I just love hearing their stories—they’ve been through a lot. It’s very gratifying for me to be focused on preventing some of their issues and hazards. I feel professionally that I’m doing a lot for my patients. Maybe this is because of my grandparents. My grandfather, who is still alive, is 98, lives in his own home and walks up sixty steps to get there. As an aside, even my two cats and pug, Callie, are geriatric!

Are you a saver or a spender? What luxury might tempt you to raid your piggybank?

Unfortunately, I am more a spender than a saver. I splurge on food, which I really enjoy, and certain types of entertainment with my kids. I love going to museums, parks, the library, and the farmer’s market with my kids.

You have, I believe, studied voice and are a singer. What is your voice type and what music do you sing?

I am a Soprano and began singing from a very early age, when a teacher suggested that I should be encouraged to take up voice as an activity. At thirteen, my mother enrolled me in the New England Conservatory of Music choir and I had voice training in high school. I studied opera, individual singing, choir, and musical theater. While I didn’t always enjoy the theater part, I loved the musical part, such as playing Yum-Yum in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Now I’m more of a shower and car singer but my four-year-old sometimes tells me, “Mommy, don’t sing! I want to sing!”

Where is your sanctuary, the place where you unwind, decompress, and feel that you can just be?

Recently, it’s been the gym where I get away from the chaos of my home in the evening hours. There are few people at that time, so I get on the elliptical and unwind, with or without music, and think, exercise, and regroup in a period of mindfulness. It’s nice to reset and recalibrate my mind. Doing something for ourselves is so important in this profession; it isn’t selfish, it’s important to practice what we preach.

Has being a parent changed you, and how?

Absolutely. A couple of things have changed me. My priorities are different. In both my professional and personal life, in my direct interaction with patients and colleagues, I feel that I’m more understanding and allow for more. I try harder to understand the pressures that other people have to juggle in their lives. The same skills that I apply in patient care are applicable at home.

Did you ever have a rebellious period of your life? What was the craziest fad you followed as a teenager?

If I were to say that I had a rebellious time in my life (although my parents might say that I was a model child), it would have to be in high school. I did the whole purple hair, punk rock thing, wore John Fluevog and Doc Martens, even had combat boots! I definitely went through a punk rock phase in the mid-80s and went along with the trends of the time. I have one picture with me in purple hair and black eyeliner but I don’t know how impressive that is.

What is the nicest compliment you can recall being paid?

About a month or so ago, a patient simply said, “You are a good person.” I left the room aglow and that really made my day.

If your life were to be made into an opera, what might be its title? Who would you select to play you?

Stephanie’s theme would probably be “The Juggler!” I haven’t kept up with contemporary opera singers so I’ll say myself. I don’t think anyone else could play me.

Stephanie, thank you!

- by Oralia Schatzman

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