April 1, 2017

Dr. Norman Schachar | Professor emeritus saw bald prairie transformed into medical school

When Dr. Norman Schachar first showed his wife where he worked, she couldn’t believe it.

When Dr. Norman Schachar first showed his wife where he worked, she couldn’t believe it.

“She said, ‘How can that be a university? There are no trees here,’” says Norman, recalling the empty hilltop field of the early 1970s that later became the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “It was all bald prairie.”

He is now a professor emeritus of surgery at a faculty celebrating its 50th anniversary. “It’s so special to be able to look back and see the whole thing, and to be able to say: ‘This is where we’ve come from.’”

Norman’s arrival in Calgary in 1970 marked the first time the University of Toronto graduate had ever been west of Windsor, Ont. “I can still remember that exciting moment driving that huge old Dodge when I saw the mountains for the first time,” he says. “The Foothills Hospital was sitting right in that mountain view.”

As part of the first group of interns at the medical school, which had yet to be built, he undertook his studies at what was then a single building called the Foothills Provincial General Hospital. He started teaching anatomy to the first class of medical students in 1971 because there weren’t enough professors.

Surgical interns such as Norman were asked to help fill the gap. “We were still really only students, ourselves,” he says.

In honour of their graduation as interns, Norman and some friends took a load of bricks at night from the construction site of the medical school. They sealed up an underground tunnel used by one of their supervisors to get to the hospital.

“Now, you’d probably go to jail,” says Norman, laughing. “But in those days, everybody figured you had to do a prank when an auspicious occasion like that came along.”

After going to Harvard Medical School in 1976 for his fellowship, he returned to the CSM in 1978 to become an assistant professor of surgery, eventually becoming a full professor specializing in orthopaedic oncology. Besides helping to formalize residency and fellowship training, he undertook research into bone banking and limb preservation for bone cancer patients, as well as creating a tissue bank.

He also founded the faculty’s orthopaedic oncology division. “When I went away in 1976, the five-year survival rate for children with bone cancer was only about 20 per cent, and they all had to have an amputation,” he says. “Now, the survival rate is 80 per cent, and with modern chemotherapy, we can preserve their limbs, so that statistic has been turned on its head.”

But it is his work helping train numerous generations of medical students that he counts as his biggest achievement. “I don’t know the exact number, but I would say I’ve taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students,” he says.

Former students include two of Norman’s daughters, one of whom is also an orthopaedic surgeon. “Calgary has been very good to my family,” says Norman, who will be 72 in July. “In this city, anything is possible.”

Tidbits from Norman:

Do you have any hidden talents? I’ve been doing a little stand-up comedy in my semi-retirement. I love to make people laugh. It shows they’re listening, and I find it less frightening than giving a paper at a scholarly meeting. I also co-wrote a book on the history of the Cumming School of Medicine that also has some humour. It’s called The Department: A Surgeon’s Memories … Before I Forget.

What advice would you give to incoming faculty members: Keep dreaming, and be positive.

Where would you like to see the CSM in the next 50 years: I would like to see it recognized in the top echelon of medical schools in the world, but still maintain its homey pioneer spirit.