If you want to know the true legacy left by Michael F. Schafer, MD, you need only look to the remembrances posted to his memorial page at www.tributes.com. There are words of admiration and affection from many fellow orthopaedic surgeons who held him in high esteem—as a mentor early in their careers, as a colleague, and as a friend. There are also tributes from others in his professional orbit—nurses, a radiology technician—and from loving friends and family members.
Just as telling, however, may be the number of comments from patients who shared their memories of a physician who attended to their conditions and a man who touched their lives.
Dr. Schafer died Oct. 17, 2018, at the age of 76 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital—the institution where he himself was an institution, as a spine surgeon and a sports medicine physician who counted some of Chicago’s best-known athletes among his patients.
He gave much of his time to the orthopaedic profession, including extensive service to the Academy, as a member-at-large on the Board of Directors in 2008 and 2009, as chairman of the Communications Cabinet from 2010 to 2014, and as a key player in crafting and advancing the stature of AAOS in the public eye. He was a friend and important contributor to AAOS Now, as a founding member of its editorial board and a valuable voice in shaping its direction. In 2008, he was recognized with the Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation William W. Tipton Jr, MD, Leadership Award.
Dr. Schafer’s orthopaedic colleagues held him in the highest regard. “[Dr. Schafer] was first and last a doctor’s doctor and always kept his focus on what was best for the patient,” said David D. Teuscher, MD, 2015–2016 AAOS president. “I was lucky enough to serve with him for several years in the leadership of AAOS, where he was universally respected as a leader, mentor, and great humanitarian by his colleagues and the professional staff.”
“[Dr. Schafer] was a ‘can do,’ positive guy,” said Kristy L. Weber, MD, AAOS first vice-president. “The glass was always half full for him. He always looked for creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.”
Many among Dr. Schafer’s high-profile athlete patients revered him. Andre Dawson, beloved Chicago Cubs outfielder, mentioned Dr. Schafer in his baseball Hall of Fame induction speech. He told Barry Rozner, who wrote a piece called “Mourning the Passing of Legendary Chicago Doc” in the suburban Chicago Daily Herald: “[Dr.] Schafer had a very gentle way about him that would always make you feel better about your problem, encouraging you and letting you know it would be okay, and he would get you back on the field. He made you feel better. That’s a skill.”
On the tribute site, some among Dr. Schafer’s many patients whose names weren’t in the sports pages spoke of his effect on their lives; among them were those with scoliosis, a condition to which he devoted much of his research time and passion, as well other debilitating and painful back disorders.
Describing the way Dr. Schafer combined advanced medical expertise and ingenuity with deep compassion and empathy, one patient perhaps spoke for many when she wrote, “He literally straightened my spine out and my life also. I will always be grateful for his kind caring, his honesty when he did not have an answer, his perceptiveness, his skill as a surgeon, and his genuine likability.”
The gratitude that many orthopaedic surgeons who trained under Dr. Schafer hold for him was expressed by Michael Diment, MD: “In 1986, I was a hard-working kid from Iowa, and Dr. Schafer gave me a chance, by accepting me into the Northwestern residency program. I wanted so badly to go there and knew how fortunate I was to be chosen. What I didn’t know was how profound an impact [Dr.] Schafer would have on my life. His dedication to his patients and the time he spent with them, his dedication to the residency program, the residents, the faculty, the hospital, and his dedication to his friends and family was inspiring to say the least, and never again to be duplicated to say the most. I know I am only one of many who is a better physician, and a better man, for having known [Dr.] Schafer.”
David Shapiro, MD, commented: “I met [Dr. Schafer] when I was a junior medical student almost 40 years ago at Northwestern. He became a role model and mentor to me and the reason I became an orthopaedic surgeon. I was privileged to come back and join him in practice as a spine surgeon—the proudest moment of my career. He was a friend, teacher, colleague, and remained a mentor for almost 30 years. He embodied the principles of being a great doctor and a great human being.”
Dr. Schafer completed his residency at Northwestern in 1972 and became chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery in 1979. He stepped down from that role in 2011 to be, as he put it, “just a doctor,” the Chicago Tribune reported. His son Brian told the Tribune that Dr. Schafer owed his choice for a career in medicine to a bout with polio at age 10, during which an orthopaedic surgeon visited him every day while he was in an iron lung.
Last year, Northwestern announced that an endowment fund in Dr. Schafer’s name had reached its funding goal and will serve to advance the research and training missions of the department of orthopaedic surgery in perpetuity.
Dr. Schafer is survived by his wife, Eileen; a daughter; four sons; 18 grandchildren; and two sisters.
Terry Stanton is the senior science writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.