Trailblazing Johnson County pediatrician Kathleen Shaffer retiring after 36 years

Kathleen Shaffer is retiring after 36 years as a pediatrician in Johnson County.

Being a woman in pediatrics may not seem particularly noteworthy in 2018. But when Kathleen Shaffer, MD, started her career back in 1982, she was the only female physician in private practice in the field in Johnson County.

And while a lot has changed in the landscape of pediatrics over her 36 years, Shaffer said one thing has stayed consistent: The need to form close relationships with young patients and their families.

“When you see a physician, you’re allowing them into a very private space, and it is such an honor to be invited into that private space (by the family),” Shaffer said. “I will miss that connective-ness; it’s deeper in some ways and different than a friendship because there’s more responsibility, I think, on the physician’s part — of the care they’re delivering, advice that you’re giving.”

Nearly equally cherished by Shaffer is that strong sense of camaraderie and shared knowledge with her colleagues at Johnson County Pediatrics and in other private practices. For instance, pediatricians in the area consult with each other on particularly complex illnesses.

“That keeps all of us very engaged in problem-solving, even when it wasn’t a patient that we particularly saw,” Shaffer said. “I’ve often said that, as a physician, we’re often a puzzle master. Different problems will be presented, and our job is to see if they’re connected, and are all those problems related to each other, or do they need to be handled independently? But as a pediatrician, often, you can gather the different things going on and find out it is one problem.”

Those strong ties first began with three colleagues who, along with her, were the first pediatricians at Johnson County Pediatrics: Dr. Gerald Wigginton, Dr. Bryan Nelson and her husband, Dr. Stan Shaffer. Shaffer first began practicing April 1, 1982, as an associate at Johnson County Pediatrics.

Traditionally, women who went into medicine stayed in the “protective environment” of a teaching hospital — for instance, Children’s Mercy Hospital houses medical students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Shaffer said. In that way, women doctors could care for patients during the day while being ensured they could return home to be wives and mothers.

“A third of my residency class were women; my generation of physicians were kind of the first ones to say, ‘Well, let’s take on being in private practice,” Shaffer said. “I give credit to my senior partners that they were willing to do that.”

“There wasn’t a lot of support; you had to figure out your own support,” she said.

In fact, Shaffer recalls she was six months pregnant when she interviewed to work at Johnson County Pediatrics — far outside the tradition that women leave work and stay home after having children.

As a Doctor of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Shaffer is also proud of her whole family’s dedication to medicine. Stan Shaffer is now working with midwives across the world, including Mexico, Peru and India, to establish safe birthing practices in countries that are poor with resources.

Shaffer said she’s glad their two grown children, Christopher Shaffer and Brynn Everist, were “not scared off” from becoming physicians themselves, considering their parents were both doctors who often had to leave home to go see a patient. Christopher is a pediatric anesthesiologist in San Francisco, and Brynn is a pediatrician in Kansas City, Kan.

Their family also does a lot of mission work in Haiti, she said.

“I think that gave them such a view of the effect a doctor can make,” Shaffer said, adding that stories from work in Kansas City “didn’t resonate” quite as much as seeing the powerful impact of medicine in low income countries.