UW News

June 3, 2010

With ham radio volunteering and managing diabetes, nothing slows this dedicated manager

Environmental & Occupational Health

“This is KD7YRH. Kilo Delta 7 Yankee Romeo Hotel,” Rosie Schaffer says into the ham radio, identifying herself to the others sharing the same frequency by her call sign. Schaffer is a volunteer ham radio operator for the Emergency Services Coordinating Agency, and has been for the past seven years. She and her husband have been assigned by the agency as the lead ham operators at Lake Forest Park’s Emergency Operations Center.


A year after 9/11, Schaffer earned a CERT certificate in a course that trains citizens to help their neighborhood respond and cope with a disaster when police and fire rescue teams are overwhelmed and handling dire cases first. The ham radio license soon followed.


Schaffer says they have frequent drills, but she hasn’t yet been involved in a major disaster.


“I like feeling that I might be better prepared if there is an emergency,” she says.


Schaffer knows a lot about responding to crises from her responsibilities as a manager for the Environmental Health Lab and the Trace Organics Analytical Center in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.


A large box of research samples arrives in the Environmental Health Laboratory, and Schaffer hurries to coordinate the recording of every one of the biological samples before the other researchers store them properly away at -80 degrees.


She manages the lab’s budget and oversees a database that tracks each sample submitted by faculty and staff in the department, businesses, and Washington state agencies. Certified by the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the lab receives more than 300 samples a month for testing and analysis. The samples delivered are as varied as breathing air from fire districts, urine and water samples from Bangladesh, and ambient air filters from South Seattle. Some samples require routine testing; others involve a great deal more time to develop the proper method to test the sample before analysis can be done.


“Ensuring that all samples are properly logged and tracked is often a challenge,” Schaffer says, noting that she has established many of the procedures that they currently use.


“I have to be able to judge and prioritize tasks. Even if I am working on an important administrative task, I frequently have to stop to answer inquiries from lab clients or tend to lab samples that require special handling or storage.


There is no average day, says Schaffer, who has worked in the lab since 1987. “Every day is different.”


Schaffer handles payroll, purchasing, travel, grants, equipment inventory, among other responsibilities. She explains that managing the Trace Organics Analytical Center, which is a cost center, is much like running a small business. She invoices clients and writes a quarterly report.


“In my job, it is often difficult to plan any given day. I often come into work thinking that I’ll complete a particular task, but when the workday is over, I haven’t even begun. I leave wondering where the day went.”


And then there was that day four years ago, one week before her 50th birthday, when Schaffer went in for a routine physical at the UW Medicine Woodinville Clinic. Although she’d had no warning symptoms, her practitioner told her she had diabetes.


“I was shocked,” Schaffer remembers. “How do I deal with it?” she asked herself next.


She had watched her own father suffer from complications associated with diabetes. Not long after his diagnosis, he became insulin-dependent. He had difficulty controlling his blood sugar levels, which caused many of the complications:



  • The two heart attacks that required a quintuple heart bypass.
  • A damaged nervous system that limited his ability to walk even short distances and always with significant pain in his legs and feet.
  • Foot ulcers that became infected and later meant his toes needed to be amputated.



“Dad had been a physician,” Schaffer says. “He once told me that he never knew the true meaning of chronic pain until he experienced it firsthand.”


Gastrointestinal complications eventually led to his death.


“Diabetes is not very forgiving,” Schaffer says.


She was determined to maintain better control.


Later that night with Randy, her husband of nearly 30 years, Schaffer made a plan. Her practitioner had told her that even a small amount of weight loss could make a difference in how well she would do with the illness, so from that day forward, she and Randy decided, they would cut down on portion sizes and walk daily.


And walk they did. In four years, Schaffer says they have never missed a day. They walk in rain, shine, lightning, thunder and the occasional snow. Schaffer’s most frequent walks are along the connecting Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River Trails. .


“We have a lot of fun. This is the time we talk together,” Schaffer says. She holds up breathtaking photos of nature and wildlife, another perk of each outdoor path.


Before the diagnosis, Schaffer says, she was sedentary. She didn’t know whether walking and portion control would be enough to make a difference, but she was willing to give it a try. And she’s modest about the results, which have to be pried out of her. She has lost more than 50 pounds, and kept it off.


“I would tell anybody newly diagnosed with diabetes, not to give up hope. If I can do this, anyone can,” she said.


Schaffer was recently profiled on Patient Power, an independent health and medicine website, for the changes she made to her lifestyle after being diagnosed with diabetes. See that video here.


But the daily walks haven’t supplanted her volunteer efforts on the ham radio. Schaffer logged more than 100 hours this past year as a radio operator, providing backup emergency communications to 10 cities in north King and southwest Snohomish counties. She is often called upon to be part of the communications team for fundraising events.


The most recent one was on May 22, the 100-mile Tour de Cure, sponsored by the American Diabetes Association. Schaffer was one of nearly 30 ham radio operators stationed at rest stops or on mobile units. Few of them likely knew the strides she had taken to control her diabetes. She was a cog in the intricate ham operator system designed to respond to riders’ needs or for riding accidents anywhere along the route.


And after the last rider finished safe and sound, Schaffer returned home with her husband to do their own “tour,” a slightly shorter but just as meaningful trip along their favorite walking trail.