Just think of the irony: Of all people, a woman who would die young if she didn't get a liver transplant soon was the state's chief medical officer.
At 40, Dr. Joann Schaefer of Omaha, whose job entailed looking out for the health of all Nebraskans, faced that personal incongruity — and her own mortality.
She got the transplant and, after early complications, survived.
On Friday, as the fifth anniversary of her lifesaving surgery approached, a healthy Dr. Schaefer stepped away from her job with the State of Nebraska. At farewells, she passed out specially made commemorative coins.
One side depicted a bright-red apple, her unofficial apple-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away logo. The other included her favorite saying: “Today is a GIFT. That's why they call it the PRESENT.”
The story of her 7½-year tenure as chief medical officer of Nebraska — the first woman to hold the post — consists of much more than her survival. But the upbeat, good-humored way in which she handled her illness and recovery inspired many.
“If I died young, I didn't want to be remembered as a bitter person, angry at the world because I was dealt this hand of cards,” Schaefer told me. “My mother used to say be careful how much you complain because there's always someone way worse off than you.”
Not only does she refuse to call her illness and brush with death the worst episode in her life, but she turns it 180 degrees.
“It's the best thing that ever happened in my life,” she said. “It puts things into perspective when you think you might die young. My relationship with my husband, our kids, my friends — everything is so much more valuable when you think it might be taken away soon.”
Perhaps our state's most famous local transplant recipient, Dr. Schaefer is herself a transplant — from California.
Though there were no physicians in her family (her dad was an engineer), she knew from childhood that she wanted to become a doctor. At Cal State-Fullerton, she met recruiters every year from Creighton University in Omaha, and she was deeply disappointed when she wasn't immediately accepted into the CU School of Medicine.
At that interlude, while she was teaching in a private school, future husband Phil Haines entered her life in an unusual way.
Her dad was a military veteran, and her brother was in the Navy. So as a longtime supporter of the military, Joann wrote letters to “any personnel” in Operation Desert Shield.
Phil, a Marine deployed in Bahrain, saw a box of envelopes and mentioned to a colleague that most came from the East Coast of the U.S., not near his base on the West Coast.
Phil's colleague “rummaged through the box, found a letter from California and said, 'Here's one,' ” Phil recalled. “It was from Joann.”
Phil, who was divorced, wrote back. Many letters and a few funny gifts and phone calls later, they met in California in March 1991. Three months after that, they were engaged.
Joann was accepted at Creighton's med school. They married in 1992, and he moved to Omaha with two young daughters from his previous marriage, whom he and Joann raised.
Meanwhile, tragedy intervened. Her best friend from childhood got out of an abusive marriage but, three weeks later, was killed by her ex-husband.
In those days, Joann said, medical schools paid scant attention to domestic violence. As a result of what happened to her friend, she later became active in the cause, even teaching classes to med students.
Joann had thrown herself into her medical training. On a personal level, she knew that her grandmother had died of liver disease at 52, but she had no idea that she herself carried a “ticking time bomb.”
On her last day of residency in 1997, she was diagnosed with liver disease and was told that she eventually would need a transplant. “I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' ”
She staved it off for years through healthy habits. Her career flourished.
In 2002, she was appointed deputy chief medical officer for Nebraska, and she rose to the top job in 2005.
The post includes leading the Division of Public Health, creating a culture of wellness, providing emergency preparedness, and regulating and overseeing the health care system in Nebraska, among other duties.
By Christmas of 2007, Dr. Schaefer's health took a turn for the worse. Eleven family members and friends volunteered to become organ donors.
The “finalists” were husband Phil and friend Dr. Gary Gorby. Gorby's blood type was a better match, and he became the donor (half of his liver) on March 31, 2008, at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Joann said Gary, now chief of medicine at the VA Medical Center, remains “like a brother. How can you ever thank someone for that?”
Phil, now 53, had retired in 1998 as a gunnery sergeant after a 20-year career in the Marines. He works as an information technology systems analyst at the Offutt Air Force Base weather station.
Over the years he has acquired colorful tattoos — military-related on his right arm, personal on the left, including depictions of Joann's bridal bouquet and a cowboy from his native Wyoming.
He and Joann are avid runners. He has completed 11 marathons and she has run two, plus 10 half-marathons. They are movie buffs and enjoy attending musical concerts and touring Broadway shows.
Over the years, she has teased Gov. Dave Heineman about his enjoyment of Snickers candy bars and has even given him a present covered by Snickers-style wrapping paper — a basket of apples.
Dr. Schaefer said the governor has embraced a wellness program for state employees and wears a pedometer with a monthly goal of averaging 10,000 steps a day. He often returns phone calls while walking, she said, and last month averaged 14,000 steps a day.
In October, the State of Nebraska became the first state to win the C. Everett Koop National Health Award for influencing state employees' attitudes about health.
The annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, meanwhile, last month ranked Nebraska seventh among states, based on such factors as physical and emotional health and behaviors, work environment and access to health care.
Dr. Joseph Acierno of Omaha, who has served as deputy chief medical officer, succeeded Dr. Schaefer on Friday. On May 1, she becomes a vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska.
For years, she has commuted an hour each way between Omaha and her office in Lincoln, time that she has used for thinking — and singing. She is a regular performer at the Metro Omaha Medical Society's annual “Medical MESS Club Show,” this year scheduled for April 26 at the Joslyn Art Museum.
Lots of people look up to Dr. Joann Schaefer, and not just because she stands 6 feet tall. She is a survivor, and during a recent checkup she was told that her liver should be good for another 30 years.
Out of public office, she still plans to stay active in the community and the state. An apple a day won't keep this doctor away.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, firstname.lastname@example.org