Local physician considers emergency medicine his true calling
By David Blanchette
Dr. Sterling E. “Gene” Shafer has been a staff physician in the emergency department of Jacksonville Memorial Hospital since 2002, and there’s one thing in particular he enjoys about his work.
“The adrenaline,” Shafer said. “I never know what to expect. You take it as it comes.”
Shafer, who tries “to put myself in the place of the people when taking care of them,” has worked in several areas of the medical profession, but always found himself returning to emergency medicine.
“I like to take care of people long-term, but I don’t enjoy it as much as taking care of them for short times in their biggest time of need,” Shafer said. “You have to be sharp. I knew a physician who moonlighted in emergency departments to keep his skills up.”
Shafer grew up on two different farms around Alsey. Since his grandfather, father and son are also named Sterling, Shafer usually goes by “Gene,” for his middle name, Eugene.
Shafer’s aunt, Joyce Lorton, was an early influence on his career decision. She had a degree in microbiology from the University of Illinois in the early 1940s when very few women did, and worked her whole career in veterinary biology doing virology research and quality control.
“She stoked my interest in science, and initially I aspired to be a veterinarian because I grew up on farms and we raised cattle,” Shafer said. “But as time went on, I decided that I wanted to go into medicine.”
Shafer graduated from Southern Illinois University Medical School in Springfield in 1990, did an internal medicine residency there, and from 1993-1994 was chief of residents. He also did one year of a two-year infectious diseases fellowship there.
Like many other young physicians, Shafer moonlighted in small hospital emergency departments in order to help support his family. He really liked working in the fast-paced, often unpredictable environment. Shafer joined a family practice in Springfield for a year and a half before deciding that emergency room medicine was where he wanted to be.
“Emergencies don’t always come in by ambulance. A couple of times ladies have run through the door with their infants in cardio-pulmonary arrest,” Shafer said. “You become somewhat nervous but it’s a good nervous. It’s what I train for, it’s what I do. I hate to see people hurt or really sick, but I feel really good when I help them.”
Until recently, Shafer and his emergency department colleagues worked 12-hour shifts, but now they are on 10-hour shifts. Still, no matter when those shifts occur, there never seems to be a shortage of patients.
“Even in small emergency departments, just like the rest of the world, we are on a 24-hour clock. People come in at all hours of the night for both acute and non-acute things,” Shafer said. “They’re up, they’re the same people you see shopping at 2 a.m. Society has changed in that regard.”
The ultimate goal of any emergency department is to restore health, and sometimes life, to the patients that come through the door. However, saving a life is not always possible, and Shafer said in those cases, “We help our patients die. We do the best that we can do to make them and their families as comfortable as possible.”
“Sometimes they are dead when thy come through the door, and we know they’re dead.” Shafer said. “But often I will not stop a resuscitation on a baby or child until I have convinced the parents to do so. I try to give them a feeling of some control and some autonomy at a time when they have no control.”
Shafer tries to maintain a degree of detachment on the patients he sees, noting that it is, “not only to protect my sanity, but also my objectivity.” Regardless, that’s not always easy.
“My father was one of 10 children who survived to adulthood, and at least once a week I see somebody that I’m related to,” Shafer said. “I see people I’ve known my whole life and it’s harder to take care of those people than it is people that I don’t know.”
Shafer can recount several cases involving patients when he said, “I attempted to play God and learned very quickly that I’m not.” He’s been humbled by certain situations he has encountered and won’t rule out the role that prayer has in healing, although “there’s no way to measure prayer objectively like you do many other things.”
One of Shafer’s favorite quotations is from the noted physician Dr. Sir William Osler, who was considered one of the fathers of modern medicine. Osler said, “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business.”
“One of the saddest things for me is to see physicians advertised on billboards,” Shafer said. “My opinion is that medicine should not be commercialized, it should not be advertised. It’s a necessary service. If you just want to get in and make money, medicine is not for you.”
On his rare days off, Shafer indulges his most passionate hobby, motorcycling, which he has done since the age of 12. He also likes to shoot, hunt and fish. Shafer has a 32-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter from his first marriage, and a 19-year-old son from his current marriage. He also has a two-year-old grandson with another one on the way.
No matter where he happens to be, the practice of medicine is never far from Shafer’s mind. He considers work in the emergency department to be his true calling.
“You feel good that you helped another human being and that’s why I went into medicine,” Shafer said. “I would do medicine right now if I was getting a fraction of what I get paid.”