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Hail to the Chief

By Mimi Eckhard
August 2013

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On June 30, Walter Schratt, M.D., 53, completed his chief residency as the Department of Surgery’s oldest resident.

It wasn’t a second career that garnered him this distinction, but rather a second continent—the United States—that he wanted to call home.

His journey started in 1988 when life took an unexpected turn in the Deep South.

While on a research fellowship at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, the newly graduated doctor from Southern Bavaria met his wife Anne, who was studying at UAB to be a teacher.

Not speaking a word of German, Anne joined Schratt in Germany and the two began their lives together—he as a general surgeon and she as the mother of their soon-to-be three children.

But their ties to the United Sates were never far behind. In 2006, their oldest daughter, Katherina, participated in a student exchange program in Gainesville, Fla., moving in with her aunt.

“I think we always knew we’d come back to the U.S. This just set the wheels into motion,” said Schratt, who moved the rest of his family to Gainesville in 2007 while he set out to obtain a U.S. residency training spot, a requirement despite the fact that he had already completed a residency in Heidelberg, Germany, and had been practicing medicine since the 1990s.

The plan was that on weekends off, he would drive back to Florida to be with his family, depending on how close he could find a residency spot. So, he sold the family home and practice in Germany, took time off to take the necessary exams, and began applying for residency openings in the U.S.

But what they thought would only take two years, took a bit longer.
Though the American Board of Surgery did approve three years of his training in Germany, Schratt still had to compete for coveted spots in the final fourth and fifth years of residency. Unfortunately, competition was stiff, and vacancies usually went to those much younger.

So, with his 50th birthday approaching, Schratt, an accomplished German surgeon, did the unthinkable.

He took a first-year residency internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, joining the ranks of students who had just graduated from medical school.

It was a gamble that paid off. With his first year of U.S. residency under his belt and recommendations coming from as high as the executive secretary of the American Board of Surgery, Schratt landed a fourth-year residency spot at Vanderbilt in 2011.

“It can be difficult starting a residency in the middle of a program, not knowing the culture, the people or the systems. So, it actually worked in Dr. Schratt’s favor to start in a year-one position,” said John L. Tarpley, M.D., professor of Surgery and Anesthesiology and program director for the General Surgery Residency Program. “His fourth and fifth years went much more smoothly because he started in the trenches and knew what to expect.”

Schratt agreed, but jokingly added, “Yes, but six months would have been enough.”

Despite the set-back, Schratt quickly became a favorite among residents, patients and doctors, alike.

“I learned more from Walter than he learned from me, and not just about surgery,” said Kyla P. Terhune, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery and Anesthesiology and associate program director. “It takes a special person with vision beyond the ordinary to start over and do so with grace, humility and quiet strength.”

Not surprisingly, these very same qualities were cherished by patients, as well. “Dr. Schratt always spoke softly, looked them in the eye and told the truth,” said Tarpley. “It’s why on the few times he had off, we’d frequently hear, ‘Where’s my German doctor?’”

In July Schratt returned to Florida with his family and is in private practice. 

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