Under the Sun: Interviews ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Under the Sun: John Schafer, MD at 86

Posted on May 10, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

How long have you been practicing medicine?

Let’s see now, 57 years. I always tell people, if you like what you’re doing, don’t retire. Unless there’s another job you like more that you want to do. I like being helpful, being useful. You can always make someone better. It’s a real blast.

So you first entered practice in 1962. Where?

In Sonoma. I’ve practiced my whole life here. When I was completing my residency in Martinez, I saw a classified ad for a general practitioner to join a practice in Sonoma. I’ve been with that practice ever since.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

It was always science. At first I thought I wanted to be a  research scientist. But by the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.  

Why did you choose general practice?

Everything else was boring. There weren’t so many specialists in those days anyway. My partners and I – Dr. Craven and Dr. Lose – were a surgical team. We’d alternate being the surgeon, the assistant and the anaesthetist.

What changes do you see in how you practice now?

Well, as a G.P., we don’t get to do any of the fun stuff we used to do – delivering babies, hernias, other small surgeries. You miss it, but then you realize that you don’t have to get up in the night!  When I came to Sonoma there was no obstetrician or pediatrician in town.

You are the oldest member of the Sonoma County Medical Association. Do you have any questions about practicing at your age?

No. I may forget temporarily the name of something, but I make up for it with experience.  And I can always check my “little brain” – my iPhone – to find out the latest treatment. It has more updated information than the medical journals. I am currently working three days a week, and  I have no intention of retiring, unless somebody orders me to.

Computerization is something new since you began.

Yes, and it’s great. It took years for me to be comfortable with it, but it definitely has advantages. It’s quicker and it’s more complete than paper charts. Where you might have just handwritten two lines, now you are forced to enter all sorts of things, so you put down a lot more information and detail.

Anything else different than when you began?  

So many specialists.  And now the general practitioner is a “family practitioner.” The MediCare annual exam used to be a head-to-toe physical, which I never did think was of much value.  And that’s changed.

Any downsides to growing old?

You start losing all your friends and relatives. But I don’t know why everyone makes a fuss about me as a physician just because I’m older. The Sonoma County Medical Association published stories about me and some others doctors who were actually heroes. Their homes had just burnt in Fountain Grove and they kept right on practicing. I was just old.

Tell me a little about yourself.  

Well, I was born in Tacoma, WA, and I went to high school in Sacramento. My father was a sociology professor, first at Sac State, then Long Beach. I got my B.S. at UC.L.A., then went to medical school at the University of Chicago. My residencies were in Oakland and Martinez.

How did you decide on northern California to live?  

Well, I visited my aunt in Tacoma one spring during my residency. I asked her when does the sun come out, and she replied “Sometime in June.”  So I knew I wanted the northern California climate. And Sonoma is such a beautiful place to live and work. Everyone looks out for one another.

Where is your office?

My partners and I are on Perkins Street. I was tired after 43 years in the concrete prison that was our old office on W. Napa. I might have retired if my partners hadn’t found this neat new office.

I notice you have a little “smart” car. That’s my little GEM.  It goes up to 25 MPH. I take it to work when the weather’s bad. Otherwise I go on my Vespa scooter.  My office is only half-a-mile from home.

What do you do in your time off?

I sing in the Congregational Church choir, and the Sonoma Valley Chorale. And I like to fix things. Seems there is alwys something that needs to be fixed at the church. I go skiing in Tahoe a couple of times each winter.

Downhill skiing?

Yes. Cross-country is too much work.


Interview by Anna Pier


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