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Schafer bids farewell to Rural Medical Clinics

Freeman Courier of Freeman, South Dakota

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Merino P.A. of 22 years says so long at Jan. 26 reception in Menno

The end of an era at the Menno branch of Rural Medical Clinics came Sunday afternoon, when friends and well-wishers filed through the doors of the Rames-Bender Post 152 American Legion Hall to give a warm send off to longtime physician's assistant Doug Schafer.

Schafer, 65, retired from his position at the clinic Jan. 3 after over 22 years of service in health care.

"I'm going to have to spend most of my time saying thank you," said Schafer in an interview with the Hutchinson Herald prior, to the Sunday, Jan. 26 reception. "I think what I need to do is thank the people who were instrumental and made it as enjoyable as it was for 22 years."

Schafer had that opportunity Sunday as dozens of friends, co-workers and former patients filed through a line, waiting for a chance to thank the man who had, for many of them, been their first and primary health care provider in the small, rural clinic that services the Menno and Olivet communities as part of Freeman Regional Health Services.

It's not exactly where he expected to be at this point in his life Born in Minot, N.D., Schafer moved around with his parents as a youngster, moving to the Sioux Falls area in time to attend high school. He attended Washington High School in Sioux Falls and graduated, but the medical field was not in his immediate future. A bet by his mother-in-law brought Schafer to his first career — law enforcement.

He worked for both the Sioux Falls Police Department and the South Dakota Highway Patrol for a time, before his wife Marge gently encouraged him to leave the dangerous world of police work. Opting for a completely different challenge, Schafer enrolled at the University of South Dakota with the intention of entering the medical field.

Following graduation, he worked as a physician's assistant in Lemmon for four years before a desire to be closer to family drew him closer to the Sioux IFalls area. After considering a posittion at the Freeman location of Rurral Medical Clinics, Schafer received an offer on a position in Menno.

His first trip to the community left an impression on him, Schafer said.

"They asked if I would consider going to Menno," Schafer said. "So I came down here on my motorcycle and came to church. And after church the typical bull-headed German from Russia needs to know everyone. So Earl Keller comes up to me and asks who 1 am and that he was glad I came."

Keller took Schafer to lunch at The Open Door Cafe, and not long after Schafer decided that Menno was where he would begin the next phase of his professional life.

In the 22 years Schafer has helmed the main desk at the clinic, he has seen patients of every age and variety and helped them through the medical trials and tribulations of their lives. He swabbed throats for strep tests, squeezed arms to test for blood pressure and administered tests for high school athlete's physicals.

Some patients he has known, literally, all their lives.

When patient Jan Zeeb checked with Schafer about her health before becoming pregnant, Schafer began his involvement in bringing newborns into the world in the delivery room.

"Jan Zeeb came up and asked permission to get pregnant, and I had never had anyone ask me that before,' Schafer said. "And she asked me to be a part of that; We ended up-assisting in somewhere over 50 regular deliveries."

It's one of the most satisfying aspects of his time in health care.

"Talk about a hoot, to be involved in a birth - a new life!" Schafer said. "And then to see that kid grow up and to take care of his cuts and runny noses."

Schafer, who developed a reputation for not mincing words when speaking to patients, had a disarming personality when it came to child patients, said Dr. Dennis Ries, a former physician with Freeman Regional Health.

"He has an excellent report with patients, especially kids," Ries said at the reception Sunday afternoon. "He said it like it was, and he clearly enjoyed his work."

His sometimes blunt sense of humor endeared him to other clinic staff members, as well. Audrey Fergen, who has worked at the clinic's Menno branch throughout Schafer's tenure, shared her memories of Schafer's skills and quirks.

She said they both shared a frustration in the process of moving from paper to computer medical records and other general challenges of staffing a rural medical clinic. Schafer provided guidance as head of the staff and levity when challenges became frustrating.

It's a combination that makes for a good leadership, Fergen said, "It's. been really great knowing Doug and Marge over the years." Fergen said. "It's been great having you as a boss."

Schafer was quick to return the compliment.

"My success is due in large part to Audrey. She made life livable. This would not have been as good a 22 years without her," Schafer said.

The 22-year stint is the longest Schafer has spent in one location, and while he said there are a myriad of wonderful memories of the people and his work here, he said it is finally time to come off call and take some time for himself and his family.

"Back in the olden days I started out with the Sioux Falls Police Department when I was 18. I had 18 years of law enforcement and another 22 years in medicine in one form or another," Schafer said. "I've been on call all that time."

Schafer and his wife had their sites set on Mobridge, where they recently purchased a house and have been in the process of moving from the rural residence near Olivet to the more arid West River climate, which appeals to

Schafer, who dislikes the intense humidity that can come with East River living.

His love of the outdoors will also be easy to satisfy on the plains north of Pierre. The open prairie will give him plenty of opportunities for long motorcycle rides, and there are still shooting competitions to be attended in places like Wagner and Bismarck. He said he will miss spending time with his friend, local gunsmith Bob Winter, but he expects to find his way back to the neighborhood on occasion.

"I have a father-in-law in Canton who is 88, so we'll be down about once a month, and there's still (shooting competitions) in Wagner, so we can combine a trip to come down and see the kids and father-in-law and get in some shooting without breaking the bank," Schafer said. "If I don't get to pick on Bob once every two or three weeks, I go into withdrawals. He's been a very good friend."

That connection was evident Sunday when the staff from the Menno clinic presented Schafer with a piece of airbrushed art by local artist Mickey Harris that depicted a shooting range he had helped Winter construct on his farm.

Admittedly an emotional man, Schafer was clearly moved. But his voice didn't crack until his final comments to those in attendance.

"It's been a good ride. If you're a motorcyclist, you know it's not about the destination, it's about the ride," he said. "It's been a good ride."

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Original Publication Date: January 29, 2014

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