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Long-Time Mentor Don Schalch Enjoys the Journey

Don Schalch, MD, is a professor emeritus in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism in the Department of Medicine.


Don SchalchAlthough he retired in 1999, he still rides his bicycle 12 miles round trip to work at the School of Medicine and Public Health every day as a part-time faculty member - at age 83.


He also volunteers as the medical director and regular attending physician for MEDiC, the medical student-run network of eight clinics for uninsured and under-served people in the Madison area.


In recognition of his efforts, in 2008, the fourth-year medical students in the Gold Humanism Honor Society chose Schalch as the first UW faculty member to receive the Leonard Tow Humanism Award.


Three years later, based largely on his student mentoring, the Department of Medicine honored Schalch with the Schilling-Harkness Teaching Award.


In all, Schalch has been a mentor for most of his 53 years as a physician. In 1998, as the jewel in his crown, he was chosen as the class mentor for the School of Medicine and Public Health Class of 2002. He spent 50 percent of his time over the next four years as a fellow medical student in that class.


Those students took the unprecedented step of asking Schalch, and then lobbying the administration, to have him deliver an address at their graduation ceremony - following which they gave him a standing ovation.


The following Q&A describes his role in mentoring School of Medicine and Public Health students.


Where did you study medicine?


I earned my medical degree from the University of Cincinnati, then completed my residency in internal medicine at the University of Rochester in New York, and fellowships in endocrinology at the University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis.


Why did you want to be a mentor?


My motivation for mentoring students is to help shape the type of doctor that I hope we will have for generations to come. My fondest wish is to have a positive impact upon our students’ lives and careers. I believe that medicine is a noble profession and that it is a true privilege to be a doctor. I also feel that the best doctors share this idealism.


Our students do, too, but it needs to be nurtured and protected. Knowledge and intellect are naturally critical, but so are dedication, empathy, generosity and patience. I wanted to help new generations of doctors understand this. My dream is that my work as their mentor will help them find fulfillment and handle the challenges ahead of them as doctors and, in doing so, provide better care to their patients.


What responsibilities did you take on as a mentor?


My mandate as the mentor for the Class of 2002 was to be a friend, colleague, confidant and role model. To fully understand and assist with the students’ academic needs, I decided to do something I think no other mentor has attempted. Not only did I attend every class in the first two years and read all of the assigned material, but I took - and passed - all the examinations. Going through medical school a second time was my way of personally sharing my classmates’ medical school journey. I spent four hours each morning with the whole class, and my classmates knew that they were invited to come to my office, call or e-mail at any time, day or night. And they did.


It was a busy schedule. Twice a week, I would leave the old medical school building after attending classes, hop on my bicycle, stop at my office at UW Hospital and Clinics, and keep going to see patients with endocrine disorders at West Clinic. These were long days, and therefore I subsequently requested that my faculty appointment be reduced to half-time so that I could spend more time as the class mentor.


After the first two years, students are split up to work in various clinical practice sites throughout the state. During the third and fourth years, I divided my time proportionately between attending clinical conferences with all of the “in town” students and driving to places like La Crosse, Marshfield, Milwaukee, Rice Lake and Minocqua, to see how students in those areas were doing.


What types of academic issues did you help students cope with?


Often students come to medical school with 4.0 GPAs and a long list of their extramural activities. They can get discouraged when they don’t get an “A” in every course. I had to convince students to keep their eye on their fundamental goal of becoming the best doctor they can be, and remind them to look upon fellow students not as competitors but as colleagues.


If a student was really struggling, I could usually provide emotional support, put him or her in touch with the appropriate faculty member for advice or tutoring, explain the relevance between basic science studies and clinical medicine, and suggest opportunities for obtaining more clinical experience.


Were these the most serious problems your students faced?


The most serious problems the students confronted were personal. They were the joys and sorrows of daily living. I was a friend they could come to for solace and encouragement. Sometimes it was a problem in a student’s relationship with her or his “significant other.” Sometimes it was an illness in a student’s family.


After only one year of medical school, a true tragedy struck. A group of students was in Malawi for a month of volunteering in clinics. The bus they were riding in was hit by a train on their last day. One of the students, Michele Tracy, was killed, and many others were seriously injured. Despite desperately wanting to go to meet the students in South Africa to comfort them on their return trip to the U.S., I was unable to do so. I did my best to help them heal from this emotional and physical trauma after they arrived in Madison.


The class I mentored was extraordinarily close and mutually supportive, and I tried to nurture this quality. I was happy when one student called me the “glue” that helped hold the class together. The students did all sorts of interesting things together, including attending a “Wilderness Medicine Course,” and skiing in Colorado, organizing a weekend of skiing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and going on a two-day canoe trip on the Wisconsin River.


My wife, Joanne, and I felt honored to be asked to join them on all three of these adventures. Their devotion to one another was so noteworthy that during their graduation ceremony, Dean Philip Farrell referred to them as the “kumbaya class.” That made me smile.


How were you able to commit so much time and energy to mentoring?


I could do it because Joanne supported me every step of the way. When I left at the crack of dawn and worked nights and weekends, she was patient. She understood when I needed to spend hours on the phone or didn’t come home for dinner because a student was in distress. I was a volunteer and so was she. She went to great lengths to make students feel at home.


We invited every member of the class, all 155 students, to our home for dinner - twice. They came in small groups because our house is not that big, and each time, Joanne organized a lovely dinner party. She cooked all the food herself. For dessert, she often made something exotic! Students also had a chance to play ping pong, canoe on Lake Mendota, listen to music or simply relax.


Joanne accompanied me to all sorts of student events, including TGIF nights, art shows and performances by the medical student band, The Arrhythmias. She even came to watch me compete in tug-of-war between the medical students and law students, part of the Dean’s Cup competition. Many wives would not like to see their 70-year-old husbands partake in these kinds of activities, but she was used to it.


Have you remained in contact with the students?


Yes, most definitely. Joanne and I have attended about 25 of their weddings. We correspond with many of them, and some visit us in Madison and often invite us to visit them. We have been delighted to have gotten to meet their children. A few have used our cabin in the North Woods. Some even came up in the dead of winter to help us install windows when the temperature was -10 degrees fahrenheit, and at another time to shingle a roof.


Have you continued as a mentor?


When the School of Medicine and Public Health moved to the Health Sciences Learning Center in 2004, the mentoring program changed. With the introduction of the school’s Learning Communities - also called “Houses,” which include students from all four medical school years - the program included mentors for each house. I served in that role for the Gundersen House. I met with about 40 students in 2011, and more than 60 last year, some once, and others several times.


In a different capacity, I have been a mentor for many third-year students during their four-week rotation on the internal medicine wards. We meet three times a week to discuss their patient presentations, critique their history and physical examinations of their patients, and then we go see their patients in the hospital whenever possible.


Do you participate in community outreach activities?


For the past 20 years, I have volunteered as a generalist physician in the student-run MEDiC clinics, which provide free health care for those who are uninsured and under-served in the Madison area. I am the medical director of the MEDiC council, consisting of 30 second-year medical students and other UW health sciences students, namely from the Schools of Nursing and Pharmacy, as well as the Physician Assistant Program and Physical Therapy Program.


Beyond the UW, I volunteer in the Benevolent Specialties Project (BSP) Free Clinic, the only free specialty clinic in Wisconsin. It draws physicians from all walks of life and is an important safety net for patients who need specialty care.


What about global health outreach?


For nine of the past 10 years, I have participated in seven- to 10-day service/learning trips to San Lucas, Guatemala. This is also a student-run activity, and I work with a new group of students each year to plan and implement the trip, providing “institutional memory” to the program. Our group usually consists of 10 to 12 second-year medical students and two to three volunteer doctors.


Each day, we go in the back of a pick-up truck to small villages that are difficult to get to and from, and many of the 50 to 60 patients we see each day have never seen a doctor before. This experience has certainly shaped my view of medicine in the U.S. and the world. Both the accompanying faculty and students often describe this as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives.


What do you find most gratifying?


Personally, my family is my pride and joy. Joanne and I have four daughters and 11 grandchildren. Professionally, my mentorship role has been unquestionably the zenith of my career. I’ve been a physician for 53 years, doing research, caring for patients, teaching and holding administrative roles - but mentoring has been the ultimate experience for me.


Whenever I talk with a graduate of the Class of 2002 and hear about her or his personal and professional life, I marvel on how successful it is and how much this person has “grown” since student days. I cannot help but wonder whether whatever impact I have made on this person has influenced this outcome and, of course, hope that it has.


I blush when 2002 graduates write in Facebook complimentary messages about how much my mentoring positively influenced their lives. For example, one physician wrote, “I realize what a great impact Dr. Schalch has made on my life!”

Date Published: 07/08/2013

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Long-Time Mentor Don Schalch Enjoys the Journey

Last updated: 09/18/2013
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