The Generalist

By Tim Tibbitts '90 / March / April 2006
April 13th, 2007

One Saturday night years ago an Episcopal minister with flu like symptoms called his colleague, Reverend Anne Brewer, and asked her to fill in for him at church the next morning. Sure, she said, and, looking forward to the opportunity to preach, began working on a sermon. A few hours later the minister called back. He was feeling a lot worse.

“The pain from the middle of my stomach has moved to my right side,” he explained to Brewer. She immediately recognized the classic signs of appendicitis and encouraged her friend to go back to the ER. Brewer then promptly called the hospital staff and alerted them that the man was coming in and very likely had appendicitis. Within hours her friend was in surgery to remove an appendix on the verge of bursting. For Anne Brewer, you see, is a doctor, too.

Brewer’s day job is assistant director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Medical Center in Connecticut; being a minister, she says, is her “avocation.” She is currently an assistant minister at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. Her trip to church on Sunday morning is not nearly as long as her commute out to Stamford, however. As the wife of The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Cathedral Dean, Brewer lives in an apartment on the cathedral grounds.

Either job would be enough to keep most people busy, but as satisfying as both medicine and ministry are, neither gives Brewer an opportunity to honor the part of herself that loves speed and “contained aggression.” That’s where ice hockey comes in.

“Some people drink. I play hockey,” Brewer deadpans. “It’s cheaper than a shrink and better than punching walls.”

Brewer discovered ice hockey during her first year at Brown. Someone had posted a sign in Emory Hall, she recalls: “Women’s Ice Hockey: No experience needed. We’ll teach you.” “By the time I realized I really couldn’t skate, I was hooked,” she jokes. In those pre–Title IX days, she says, the University was “less than generous” with equipment, supplying only helmets and shin pads. When the men replaced their equipment, the women scrounged for gems among the castoffs. But the lack of equipment paled in comparison to the challenge of finding someone to play. Brown’s team, started in 1964, was the first women’s hockey team in the country. “We had to sell candy bars at the men’s games to raise money to go to Canada,” where there were other women’s teams, Brewer says.

Having played all four years at Brown, she continued with intramural hockey throughout medical school. Then life intervened, and she got away from the game for twenty years, until her son was nine and wanted to play. She dusted off her old skates and helped coach his team. One day an opposing coach gave her the business card of an attorney he knew who played on a local women’s team. Brewer’s been playing ever since.

“I used to say I’d have to stop skating when I turned sixty,” Brewer muses. “But now that sixty’s getting closer, I don’t say that anymore.” In fact, although she’s one of the oldest women on a team that ranges in age from twenty-three to fifty-eight, Brewer works constantly to improve her game. And just two years ago, at her coach’s request, she made the move from defense, the position she’s always played, to forward.

Brewer, who finds the gym “terminally boring,” constantly nags her patients to pick a physical activity they enjoy, because it is much easier to commit to exercise if it’s fun. The advice is obviously born of experience. In addition to seeing patients two half-days a week, Brewer teaches and supervises residents in both hospital and office settings.

Brewer says she enjoyed every rotation in medical school except surgery. Not surprising, given her range of interests, she was drawn to family practice because it allows her to see a little bit of everything. “The generalist’s perspective is an important one because we look at the whole person,” Brewer explains. “You constantly have to exercise your diagnostic acumen—and that’s the fun part.”

On top of it all, Brewer somehow manages to find time to walk the dog, to cook, and to read (unsurprisingly, she usually has two or more books going at once).

“I have lots of things that I love doing—and they’re energizing and different enough that it staves off tedium,” she says. “They also nurture and reflect different aspects of my personality.”

Tim Tibbitts is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio.

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March / April 2006