The Doctors Schumann

It took a while to get there, but this dynamic medical couple finally arrived in their perfect jobs in the perfect place.
By Missy Kruse
Drs. Sarah-Anne and John Schumann take a break from their active schedules serving the health and educational needs of the Tulsa community for some family time with children, Jesse, 10, and Noa, 13. Photo provided

John and Sarah-Anne Schumann are a pair of docs who never dreamed of being physicians. Particularly not in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But two years after coming to the University of Oklahoma’s School of Community Medicine, they love it. It’s just one of many things this energetic couple has in common.

The Schumanns—he is OUSCM’s internal medicine residency program director, her titles include associate professor of family medicine—are two of the best and brightest, but nevertheless they struggled with finding their life missions.

They came to health care by circuitous routes with similar undergraduate degrees, John, a history major, Sarah-Anne, history and literature. Still they were uncertain about taking their next steps.

A Cleveland, Ohio, native and the son of a metal business owner and a stockbroker, John says he knew he did not want to go into finance. “My problem has always been trying to marry all I want to do,” he says. And to hear him talk, that’s just about everything. Along with his job, he maintains a blog, GlassHospital.com, where he talks about a myriad of medical issues, and guest hosts a monthly program for KWGS, Tulsa’s public radio station.

But that doctor route? While doing his undergrad work at Yale, he dropped in on a pre-med information class and thought that becoming a physician “might be doable.” After a couple of science classes, though, “I quickly realized it wasn’t my strong suit,” he says, and gravitated toward liberal arts.

Instead, the summer after his junior year he visited eastern Europe “right after The Wall fell. It was a transformative experience,” he says. So much so that friends suggested he might do well in the diplomatic corps. He took the required exam, and passed the written part, twice, but could not pass the oral. “At that point I had to get serious. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought about teaching,” he recalls, but ultimately came back to medicine with its opportunities for learning and teaching others.

He applied to Case Western Reserve University, which attracted him because it “valued non-science majors” in its medical school program. During the year between applying and being admitted, he spent six months on an Israeli kibbutz. While at CWRU, he volunteered at a free clinic and a hospital, as ways of “making sure it was something I wanted to do,” he says. Today as a program director at OUSCM, “I am a teacher, a diplomat, and there is lifelong learning. Ironically, there’s also a lot of the business I rebelled against, because management is a huge part of what you do.”

Sarah-Anne unknowingly grew up as a perfect candidate for OUSCM. Living on the south side of Chicago, the daughter of two lawyers, she found early on that “service was my primary extracurricular activity,” she says.

Her volunteerism began with her private school’s community service project, tutoring younger public school students and serving as the social action chairperson for her synagogue’s youth group. “I helped organize volunteers for the community food pantry,” she says. “Every time I would go there to pack grocery bags, I would wonder about the people who were getting them.”

When she attended Harvard, she was involved in an “Education for Action” program at nearby Radcliffe. During her junior year of study abroad in Paris, she helped African and Southeastern Asian refugees—teaching them French. Like her husband, she says, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to take the service I had been doing to a new level.” She considered public interest law but was discouraged that law schools didn’t encourage that career path; those jobs were hard to find.

Waiting to find her way, she became a VISTA volunteer in Washington state. “I met a pediatrician who worked at a community health center,” she says, and started shadowing her. “I loved that her work involved a combination of teaching and social work and an opportunity to . . . make a difference in patients’ lives.”

She returned to Harvard for pre-med classes, was a research assistant and volunteered at a homeless shelter clinic and “knew from Day One I wanted to work with underserved populations.” She applied for and received a National Health Service Corps scholarship, which requires recipients to work with the underserved. “Many medical students are reluctant to apply because they want to keep their options open,” she says, “but I knew that (community service) was the only reason I went.”

The Schumanns met on a blind date when she was a medical student at Harvard in Boston and he an intern at the Cambridge Health Alliance. John had gone home to his 10th high school reunion where a classmate told him, “You have to meet my roommate. You’ll love her; she’s a doctor.” Well, not immediately perhaps, but they discovered “very early on” that they had a lot in common—Harvard/Yale; their Reform Jewish background; their college majors “and a lot of weird other things,” says Sarah-Anne. They had attended the same canoeing summer camp in northern Ontario, done the same five-month program in Israel, gone to Central America to learn Spanish. Amazingly on that first date, “we didn’t talk about medicine once,” says John. They became engaged in four months and married a little over a year later.

Although they loved Boston, after their first child, daughter Noa, was born during Sarah-Anne’s residency, they elected to find jobs in Chicago where they would be close to her family and nearer to John’s family in Cleveland. Their son Jesse arrived three years later. They had moved with every intention of staying there, they say. She had the perfect job as director of community health and service learning for the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. He worked on the UChicago medical faculty, an academic internist engaged in clinical practice, but had yet to find his niche. He became involved in the then-new patient experience movement. He pitched UChicago to develop a program on the subject, but nothing substantive ever came of it.

Then a delegation of OUSCM administrators and representatives from its major donor, Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation, came for a site visit to UChicago’s community health program, where Sarah-Anne gave a presentation and was given a packet about OUSCM. “I was invigorated by the ideas of the school. I met Dr. (Gerard) Clancy, heard his road show. I thought he had a great message; the school seemed really mission-driven,” Sarah-Anne says. She read the material and thought it was “cool” that a whole school was devoted to community medicine. She also came to Tulsa for a meeting of community medicine advocates. At one such event, a GKFF health officer asked her, “When are you going to move to Tulsa?”

Although the idea had never crossed her mind, she said if OU could find something that would interest her husband, they would come for a visit. Everyone thought they were crazy, the Schumanns say. Oklahoma? In the end, the compelling reason was “the potential to make a bigger impact here in Oklahoma” as well as with the growing School of Community Medicine.

John’s work as program director “is the perfect leadership position for me,” he says, with time to work on vision, strategy and planning for the residency program. It has also given him time to discover what may become a secondary career—talk show host. Working with KWGS as a substitute host for its popular “Studio Tulsa” has led him to imagine a weekly medical affairs program that could be distributed nationally. “I want to talk about the meta of health care: What does it mean to be a doctor—or a patient? How do doctors think? Patients think? Nurses think?”

Sarah-Anne, who is simultaneously associate chief medical officer at Tulsa’s Morton Comprehensive Health Services (a federally qualified community health center), is excited about the new four-year Tulsa medical school. Set to open 2015, it will finally bring pre-clinical (first- and second-year) medical students to Tulsa’s campus, joining the cohorts of third and fourth years that already train there. “To really affect change, we need to have students here for all four years,” she says. “There are all kinds of things we can do—get students out into the community health clinics, pair them with social service agencies. We are already doing pilot training using medical students as wellness coaches.”

Sarah-Anne helped OUSCM and Morton receive a federal grant to increase family medicine residents’ involvement via training at Morton, which will improve their knowledge of community and outpatient medicine. She is also working toward implementing a comprehensive health program for Educare families that will provide primary care and wellness programs including physical activity, stress management and nutrition. (Educare is a pre-school learning program for at-risk children with three Tulsa locations.)

Yes, there were opportunities in Chicago and Boston, the couple admits, “but we feel more needed here,” says Sarah-Anne. “The added bonus is that Tulsa turns out to be a good place to live. Our daughter had her bat mitzvah, and the family members who came were stunned at all that was going on.” There will likely be even more happening because of Drs. John and Sarah-Anne Schumann.

Missy Kruse is a freelance writer living in Tulsa.