Born and raised in Needham, MA, Sue is the oldest of three children born to Barbara and Peter. Her undergrad years at Yale were followed in short order by medical school at Wash U., including studies in South Africa, and leading eventually to her residency in St. Paul, where she has served as a family physician ever since.
Married to Rob (z’l), together they raised daughter Allison and son Zach, leading in more recent years to her welcoming into their home a growing number of exchange students.
She found the time to meet recently over coffee at Dunn Bros., with the photo taken by the ambient light of the Khyber Pass next door.
My parents moved to Needham when I was three, after my dad had finished law school at Yale. I went to high school there and we were members of the large Reform synagogue, Temple Israel on Longwood Avenue. So I went to Hebrew school there, if you can call it that, and that’s where I became a bat mitzvah.
My dad is still alive and will be turning 78 on the 4th, and he just recently moved from the house we grew up in to independent living nearby. He had worked as a tax lawyer on the 55th floor of the John Hancock Company in Boston for many years, and he loved it there.
My mother passed away at the age of 81 about three years ago. She received her Bachelor’s degree at U Mass Amherst and had initially worked at MIT in a research lab for Dr. Phil Robbins, who was a well-known biochemistry researcher there. She was working there when she met my dad through a blind date.
What was her maiden name?
Brown. Which means nothing, because that was the name that was assigned to her father at Ellis Island when he came over. Another brother became Shapiro, and another one got something else. He was the youngest of six to come over from their shtetl in the Ukraine.
But both my parents were born here, actually my dad was born in England, while my grandfather was studying physics for his PhD at Cambridge.
Do you remember your bat mitzvah?
I do! It was pretty progressive for the time, though we didn’t do a D’var Torah. I do remember chanting Torah, and Haftarah, and I remember having to learn those working from tapes. And recently I found the tapes at my dad’s house!
Were they tapes that the cantor had prepared?
No, it’s me! It’s the recording that my father made of me chanting for my bat mitzvah. And for whatever reason I ended up chanting the Chanukah portion.
I should borrow those, we could insert a sound byte into this posting.
Uh, no. I don’t think so. You’ll have to come to services.
Do you chant now?
I do. I often chant on Saturday mornings at services. I started to become involved with chanting with Our Bodies Our Souls, and then when Allison became a bat mitzvah I chanted two of the portions then. That was a difficult time. Her bat mitzvah was just six weeks after Rob had died.
So going back, who was your favorite teacher growing up?
Mrs. Collins. She was my sixth grade science teacher. And Mrs. Maddox. She was my second grade teacher, who would read Narnia, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us. And that was the first time I wrote a little diary. Of course I made everything up. But I wrote it. And of course my mother – who saved everything – saved my little diaries. I don’t know if they still exist. I just remember reading them later and going ‘oh my god!’ I had a really good imagination. Not much of this was really true, but it’s what I wanted to be true.
Who was your first crush?
My first and only crush back then was Keith. We went to prom together, and spent most of our senior year dating. He went on to Penn, and we visited in college, but things happen and you grow apart.
Was he Jewish?
Nope, Polish all the way. Blond and blue eyed Polish. But we both played tennis, and that’s how we met. We played varsity tennis.
Did you have any memorable vacations growing up?
When I was 15, we spent the whole month touring all of the national parks. We flew out to LA, and then rented a station wagon and tent trailer and drove this huge loop and saw all these national parks. Except my dad didn’t really understand AAA Triptiks, so he didn’t realize how long it was going to take to drive all these places. He was used to Boston sized distances. So in a single day we went to both sides of the Grand Canyon! How crazy is that?
After high school you then went on to Yale, what did you do there?
I went to Yale for my degree in biochemistry, and I worked in the lab at the Yale Medical School during the summers. We studied duck salt glands – the sodium potassium ATPase enzyme that allows ducks to take in salt water and turn it into fresh water. And I got free duck out of it! Because all we needed were the heads. And we had all these beautiful white ducks, so I was able to make a lot of different curry duck dishes that summer.
And after college?
I went abroad after college, traveling all over Europe for six weeks. It was my own post graduation gift. My cousin was supposed to go with me, but she backed out at the last minute, so I went anyway. I knew people over there and I did the whole youth hostel, Eurail thing. It was a wonderful experience – I was able to see a lot of countries.
I went to Germany too, but I didn’t like it at all. You have in the back of your mind the history, and that colors what you see. I remember going to Munich, and it happened to be a cloudy gray rainy day, with all of those oppressive buildings, and I didn’t know anybody there. So I hightailed it out of Germany.
Where did you go to med school?
I went to Washington U in St. Louis for four years, then I moved to Minnesota for a residency for three years and that’s how I ended up here – it was in family and community medicine at Ramsey hospital, which later became Regions. But during my senior year of medical school you could do six months of elective rotations away from Saint Louis, and six months there. And I hated Saint Louis – I did not want to be there in the summer at all, so I did three months in South Africa during my senior year, on an exchange program.
What were your impressions of South Africa?
It was amazing! I was used to Boston, which is actually a fairly small city. But Johannesburg is a big city with an array of people of different ethnic backgrounds. It was a teeming melting pot of people. We stayed at a hostel run by a German woman who was vehemently racist, and one of our students was fluent in German but didn’t let this woman know, so we heard it all. It’s a beautiful country, and we got to travel quite a bit, but Johannesburg is not a beautiful city.
What sort of work did you do there?
We worked at Baragwanath, which is a huge hospital on the edge of Soweto, and I worked in pediatrics there. That was my first experience in an African country of any kind, and at times they needed an armored ambulance to go to certain parts of Soweto to pick up people that were ill.
What was your introduction to Minnesota?
I actually came here for a one month rotation during medical school because a childhood friend was getting married at the Lake Calhoun Beach Club. His bride was from Minnetonka. So my first experience here was for a month in June, and that kind of sold me on Minnesota. When you apply for residencies it is very random – based on a match that depended on where I ranked them and they ranked me. I found out on the phone from South Africa that this is where I would be. I hadn’t ranked them number one, but I was pleased with the match.
So I came up here for a three year residency program. I moved up here single and ended up having Allison my third year of residency. Then I met Rob when Allison was four and a half, and we were engaged within six months, and married within about fourteen months.
How did you meet Rob?
We met playing in the Twin Cities Ultimate Frisbee summer league, when I was already a physician working at the clinic. He was incredibly shy – he didn’t know how to ask me out. But we finally hit it off, and he invited me to go up to the Boundary Waters with him. Then he proposed on New Year’s Eve and we got married the next May by Hennepin County Judge Karasov. It was in what was originally a synagogue on Dupont in Minneapolis, but was by then a Unitarian church, though it still had some of the original stained glass from when it was a temple.
I was a member of Mount Zion by this time, and Karmit Bulman read a prayer for us. We wrote our own service, though we had pieces from various faith traditions.
And then you had Zach?
Six weeks later. Which turned out to be a blessing, since it meant that Zach had that much more time with his dad. Everything works for a reason. And Allison now has girl cousins that bracket her age, and Zach has boy cousins that bracket his, so there was a symmetry to it.
What is Allison doing now?
Allison is living with her fiancé Nick, in Rapid City, South Dakota, doing an internship on a sustainable ag farm. And Nick is a computer programmer in the Air Force at Ellsworth AFB. He just came back from Qatar – his second six month deployment.
They met at Central High School in the IB Biology class, and they will be getting married this May in Rochester, at the Mayowood Stone Barn. It will be nondenominational, but I will get to say the Shecheyanu.
What is your Jewish life like now?
It’s a really big source of support for me, my Judaism. Doing Mussar and being involved in temple, it really means a lot to me. Of all my siblings, I am the only one who has remained religious.
How about Zach?
Zach is more involved. He’s a 17 year old junior at Highland Park, and he wants to do something with theater or film, and still be able to do football and wrestle. So we just keep going up the ladder. I want him to start looking at colleges this coming Spring break.
I will tell you, though, that probably the main reason that that my Judaism has meant so much to me is the relationships I have built with members of the temple, and the incredible support that I had when we went through Rob’s illness. I was involved before that, with the Women’s Spirituality group. In fact Karmit and Charlie Bulman are the ones who told me to come try Mount Zion. And I thought, ‘why the heck was I going to synagogue in Minneapolis, when Mount Zion was a block away the entire time?’ And I made the transition very quickly. At first I asked if Allison could at least try the preschool without having to commit and they were really respectful of that.
What is your job today?
I work at the West Side Community Health Center in Saint Paul. I’m a family physician, and I do obstetrics. I am one of the very few people who do obstetrics anymore, one of the holdouts. I’ve worked there for 25 years now, since I finished my residency. It’s a federally funded community health center, and at least 80 percent or more of my patients are Spanish speaking.
Do you speak any Spanish?
All day I work in Spanish.
You learned on the job?
I did, and I had some help. My French went out the window pretty quickly. And Spanish became the language I use.
Do you use any other languages?
I learned a little Hmong, but just enough to say ‘I don’t speak Hmong’.
Did you have any nicknames growing up?
Just Sue. Though I used to be called Bennie, for Benfield. The name was originally a German name, Bienenfeld, which eventually became Bensfield and that became Benfield.
Do you have any hobbies?
My main hobby now, I suppose, is being a host mother for high school exchange students. We’ve had five so far. I started doing that when Allison left and it was just Zach and myself, and we thought it’s not going to be good if it’s just the two of us in the house, with me often out working. And we have been blessed with wonderful, wonderful students. I wanted Zach to have positive role models, and it’s been a godsend.
Are you hosting a student now?
Yeah, Viktor is from Lithuania, and he goes to Saint Paul Prep downtown. It’s a private international school.
Are they all from Europe?
All but one so far. The first two were Spanish speakers. And the first one was Carlos, from Spain, who is a good athlete, at the international level on trampoline and tumbling. And last year I was able to go to see him compete in Florida in the junior world championships, and I sort of adopted his Spanish team. It was great.
And our plan at one point was to go to Spain, except then Carlos’ family ended up moving to Michigan, so we have visited them there twice now.
A couple final questions, first, how are you most like your parents?
Oh my god! My kids would say you’re just as neurotic and anxious as your mother. How am I most like my mother? We are both science people – she would have been a physician had she lived in a different era. And I think my career became her career by default. Eventually she went back to the lab, to MIT, and worked in the cancer lab under Nancy Hopkins, until she basically had to retire about seven years later than she otherwise would have, had they known that she was seven years older than she said.
And my father – I’m athletic like he is, and I look more like him. My mom was blond hair and blue eyes. And my father and I have similar personalities, so that means that we can get along great, or we can be butting heads very fast. My mother was more the compromiser. And I love my dad because he was gender blind when he was raising us, providing the very same opportunities for all us kids – it didn’t matter if we were boy or girl.
Do you have a favorite poem?
The first one that comes to mind is one that I had posted on Facebook – it’s a poem that Zach wrote one when he was seven, and he read from the bima at his father’s funeral.
I noticed in the program last Shabbat that it was Rob’s yahrzeit this past weekend.
It was. It’s been ten years.
(a snippet from the poem she showed me on line)
Every time I see an eagle
I think I see a part of you.
And Zach wrote that at seven?
We had hospice involved and there was a music therapist, and she helped him put down in his own words how he felt.
But a seventeen-year-old boy is not going to be showing you this stuff anymore. He’s too busy voting for Bernie Sanders.