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It takes a brave man to enroll in medical school on the eve of his 40th birthday. But that is exactly what Ken Schaefle did, and so far, it is working out splendidly. He spoke to the RoundTable at length recently about his career in comedy as one of the founders of Amsterdam’s first improv club, Boom Chicago; living in Europe and in Africa; going to medical school; and taking calculated risks.
“This is really an Evanston journey, I have to say. I went to Evanston High School and Northwestern, and the guys who I founded Boom Chicago with were my classmates in Evanston High School. In fact, we were in the Chem-Phys program together, so we were side by side for three years, and then we all went to Northwestern together,” Dr. Schaefle said.
The three friends pursued different interests at Northwestern. Jon (Pep) Rosenfeld focused on performing, gaining experience as part of the Mee-Ow Improv and Sketch Comedy group. While at Northwestern, Andrew Moskos started working at the now-defunct Evanston Theater owned by Loews Corporation on Central Street. He progressed up through the Loews chain, eventually managing the Fine Arts Theater in Chicago, where he learned about tickets, seating, schedules and promotion. Ken Schaefle fell in love with sound and lighting at Northwestern, gaining experience at on and off-campus sound and lighting events, with a little bit of recording engineering thrown in.
After-college plans varied. Mr. Moskos and Mr. Rosenfeld wanted to pursue improv comedy, but felt it was impossible to get an improv job in Chicago that paid a viable wage – there was too much competition for too few positions. Fortuitously, on an earlier summer trip through Europe, Andrew had noticed that there were no improv clubs in Amsterdam, most Dutch people spoke English, and they watched American television shows without subtitles. He bet that an improv club would work there. The three friends decided to go to Amsterdam in advance of the 1993 summer tourist season and try to create a show modeled after Second City.
They would be joined by three other friends, two from the improv comedy scene in Chicago, plus their good friend Lindley Curry, from ETHS and University of Illinois, where she had majored in theater. The six friends lived together in Amsterdam, which was both cost-effective and efficient – they could be brainstorming and working out ideas all the time. Mr. Schaefle handled the tech, sound and lighting and the other five were the talent, working on scripts and jokes. There were no contracts, just six friends with an idea. Mr. Schaefle said he told the others, “We don’t know if anyone will be paid, but the rent will be paid, there will be food in the frig, and the phone will be on.”
Boom Chicago was based in Amsterdam, summers only, while the comics grew their Dutch audience. The fifth year, 1998, the team successfully extended the performance schedule through the Christmas holidays. That was the turning point; they had a thriving year-round organization.
To grow the business, they started investing in themselves. They bought video equipment, taught themselves how to use it, and started producing videos. They began producing corporate videos and plowed the profit back into Boom Chicago, hiring more comedic talent. They started touring. Every year the business grew as they took on new projects. Boom Chicago celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018 and is still going strong.
While Boom Chicago was doing very well in the early 2000s, Mr. Schaefle was not feeling as challenged as he wanted to be. Over two years or so of soul searching, he made the decision to return to school. He informed his partners a year in advance and unwound himself from the business. He applied to Columbia University’s Post-Bac program, a two-year intensive program of pre-med courses (calculus, chemistry, physics, statistics, biology) designed specifically to ready older students for medical school.
Once he was accepted to the program, he visited the Columbia campus and loved it. He decided to enroll. He returned to Amsterdam to pack up his belongings and moved to New York to start school in the fall of 2006.
He finished the program in 2009, taking a break in the middle to spend a year in Barcelona where he assisted an abdominal surgeon who wanted to become fluent in English. Once back in New York, he took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and completed medical-school applications. While his applications were processing, he worked with the heart and lung transplant group at the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in New York. The Heart Transplant Service team collects hearts and lungs from donors. His job was to manage the equipment and medicines needed to keep the organs stable, and to carry the cooler with the organs back to the waiting transplant team in New York.
Accepted to four medical schools, Mr. Schaefle chose Albert Einstein Medical College because he wanted to stay in New York and it has a very large, beautiful campus in The Bronx. He graduated in 2014, but not before taking a two month elective in Global Health at Kisoro Hospital in Uganda, where Einstein has had an academic relationship since 2007.
Upon graduation from medical school, he began a three-year residency in internal medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
After completing his residency, Dr. Schaefle was selected for a two-year Global Health Fellowship back at Einstein, combining global and public health of patients in the South Bronx and Uganda with medical education.
He visited Uganda twice a year for about six weeks at a time, with the rest of his time spent in New York treating patients and teaching medical students.
Ugandan patients do not have access to the high-tech machines that are prevalent in American hospitals. Instead, Dr. Schaefle taught the medical students from Einstein how to make bedside diagnoses based on a detailed patient health history, talking to the patient, learning about the culture and social customs and specific observations. Every participant in the program is paired with a translator who works beside them as a colleague. The language in that part of Uganda is Rufumbira, and most locals do not speak English.
As an Assistant Professor of Medicine and a member of the Global Health faculty, he edited a 1500-page, two-volume global health textbook, “Reasoning Without Resources,” filled with case studies about medical care in the developing world. It is due to be published later this year. He loves his responsibilities teaching medical students and seeing clinic patients, and he thrives in both the South Bronx and Uganda, where he spends three or four months each year. He says he feels challenged and invigorated, having found exactly what he was looking for when he decided to step back from Boom Chicago.