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07/03/2019 08:30 AM

Andrea Schaffner: A Change of Status

After a lifetime of caring for the elderly, Andrea Schaffner will be stepping down as Essex Meadows’ medical director. Photo by Rita Christopher

What happened to the college freshman who wanted to be an artist and a writer? Well, in Andrea Schaffner’s case, she became neither. Instead, in her junior year at Barnard, Andrea switched to a pre-med major, the beginning of a long career in medicine, specializing in geriatrics, the treatment of the elderly. She has no regrets that she made the change.

“I consider myself the luckiest person in the world to do what I loved for my career. I cannot imagine a more satisfying life,” she says.

Andrea was named medical director of Essex Meadows even before construction on the facility was finished some thirty years ago. Now, she is stepping down from that position though she will continue as a staff physician.

“She is patient-focused and passionate about the quality of care and the quality of life,” says Jennifer Rannestad, executive director of Essex Meadows.

Meredith Lindner, a physician with Middlesex Health Primary Care in Essex, has been named new medical director at Essex Meadows.

Andrea began the process of retirement in 2017 when she gave up her practice in her Essex office. She still remains on the medical staff at Aaron Manor in Chester and continues to see a few homebound patients. At one time, she was simultaneously the medical director of five facilities.

The would-be artist and writer has no room for reconsideration of the path she did not pursue. She says what fascinates her in literature are relationships and she realized that art and writing were lonely and solitary pursuits and she wanted more human contact. And now surveying her medical career, Andrea says it is the relationships with patients, with medical staff, and with families that are the most satisfying memories.

Still, both art and literature remain active parts of her life.

“Although I did not continue to draw, one of the pleasures of my life has been doing artistic things,” she notes. Among those things are jewelry making, furniture refinishing, and a pottery class she is starting.

“And I love to read; I have always loved to read,” she says.

On a recent afternoon, in fact, she showed a visitor a favorite childhood book that remains, rebound, on her shelf, Of Courage and Valor: Heroic Stories of Famous Men and Women, originally published in 1955. Andrea says the stories of noted women, among them social reformer Dorothea Dix, community nursing pioneer Lillian Wald, and Salvation Army head Evangeline Booth, made a lasting impression on her own notions of what women could accomplish and how they could work to improve the world in which they lived.

Andrea, the daughter of a doctor, had once considered medicine years before college. As a seven-year-old she remembers having set up her own hospital in the basement of her Scarsdale home with dolls as patients.

That was all in the past by the time she arrived at Barnard, but during a psychology course Andrea remembers the professor giving a lecture on genetics. She was fascinated.

“I realized that was where I should be,” she says.

Andrea went to see the pre-medical student advisor. There was a problem. She had taken no science. She remedied that by taking courses for two summers and an extra year before being admitted to Columbia University’s College for Physicians and Surgeons.

During her residency, done at Yale, Andrea became interested in what was then a relatively new field: geriatrics.

“The field was really just emerging. It was taking care of people and families,” she recalls. “I liked older people. I liked psychiatry. I didn’t want something high tech like cardiology.”

As people now live longer, and as programs like Medicare have become central to care for the elderly, Andrea points out that geriatrics has changed and the number of geriatric physicians has grown. One thing has not changed: the need to deal with how life ends. The goal, Andrea says, is to “make end of life as good as can be, to make it dignified, not painful. That is important. You want people to be as comfortable as they can be but there is a time to stop when people are so old, so frail, and so sick that there is no quality of life. You have to assess the quality,” she says.

Andrea’s husband, Michael Saxe, also a physician, has retired as the chairman of the Emergency Medicine Department at Middlesex Hospital, giving the pair more time for, among other things, travel, a pursuit about which they are obviously serious. A map in their den is stuck with pins showing all the places they have visited, most recently Spain twice, Portugal, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and the Indian state of Kerala. The next trip will be to South America to visit Andrea’s son William Herter, a Foreign Service officer who has just been posted to Peru. Andrea’s daughter Rebecca Herter is a nurse practitioner in New Haven and her son Brett Herter is a businessman in Colorado.

At this point in her life, Andrea can do things that she had not made time for before.

“It was all work and children; I could never prioritize making friends,” she says. Now, her schedule has room for going to a book club, playing bridge, and learning mahjong. “I have time; I have friends; now I treasure them,” she says.

Someday, rather than being a physician in senior citizen’s facilities, Andrea can imagine another role as a resident herself and she has very definite ideas on what she will be doing. She plans to abandon the self-control she has exercised all her life to maintain her weight.

“I am going to be sitting in a recliner eating French toast, absolutely. That is the goal,” she says.

Photo by Rita Christopher