An adventure that cascades through many lives (Karen Raff, part 3)

‘IN ALL THINGS GIVE THANKS’ says the plaque in the background. This remarkable, far-flung family comes together for a celebration and a group photo. 


PREVIOUSLY: Enjoy Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Here is the third and final part in our story …

“After Boston and New York, I’d gotten the need for a big, sophisticated city out of my system,” Karen says. Following her dicey drive to Ann Arbor, my resourceful new friend moved in with Gil and took a job in the ICU at the U of M Hospital, again working nights.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Ken got married. They lived on a commune Ken had started on land he bought before moving in with the nurses in Vermont. Ken called the property Ant Rockies because ants and rocks covered the ground. Karen and Nancy had made silk-screened stationery for Ant Rockies using those two images. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Nancy and Ken had a baby girl. They named her Earth Iris. Today Earth Iris is a mother herself. She legally changed her name to Erica. Nancy and Ken divorced, and Nancy came out as a “free and gay” woman. Karen lost track of Ken but remains friends with Nancy, who has since become a Dean of Nursing at Northeastern University in Boston.

Before moving in with Gil, Karen enjoyed “an easy, fun, long-distance letter writing relationship” with him. Living together, Karen learned more about Gil’s Brooklyn family. His grandfather, Bernard Senter, had held social gatherings inspired by European salons. These were attended by intelligentsia like playwright Clifford Odets and writers for the Jewish newspaper The Forward, to which Bernard also contributed.

As a boy, Gil went to public school in an accelerated class, spent a year at a Yeshiva, then returned to public school. He loved Lincoln High School where teachers invited students home to discuss great books and ideas. At 16!!! Gil received a full scholarship to MIT. He studied photography with American photographer Minor White, long time editor of Aperture magazine, and literature with playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes”). He graduated with a degree in Humanities, while also taking needed pre-med classes.

When they first met, Karen had been “captivated by Gil because he could talk about so many things—photography, film, books. He was so well-rounded.” The difference in their religions didn’t trouble her. “I was a Presbyterian from a Bible Belt state. I found his Jewishness exotic and compelling.”

So what took them so long???

Both Karen and Gil had been married before, to high school sweethearts. Both had soon divorced, neither with children. “We arrived in Vermont and New Hampshire unencumbered in 1975, and unwilling to settle down too soon this time around.” Before Ann Arbor, Karen says, “I moved from one boyfriend to another. I wanted to experience so many things while I was unmarried and free.”

In time, as she corresponded with Gil, Karen says, “He suffered through my constant complaining about organic chemistry. Gil probably realized before I did that I wasn’t cut out for a career in medicine. I loved art, and having fun, and going to parties.”

When she moved to Ann Arbor with Gil, his friends started asking him: Is she or isn’t she your girlfriend? Gil and Karen weren’t quite sure.

Less than a year later, it was time for Gil to leave Ann Arbor to begin his cardiology fellowship in San Francisco. “I don’t think you should come with me,” Gil said. “I’d like you to, but you won’t have a job because you don’t have a California nursing license. I don’t think it’s good for you to follow your doctor-boyfriends around the country being dependent on them. That’s not the kind of person you want to be.”

“It was true,” Karen says. “How many surgical residents in training did I intend to follow around the country before I found the right one to settle down with? In those days, it seemed acceptable to experiment in that way. But my search was coming to an end.”

Gil was giving notice on his apartment. He recommended Karen start looking for a place to live.

“Well,” Karen said, “If I did happen to have a California nursing license, would you want me to come with you? If I could earn my own way when I got there?”

“Of course I would.”

“That’s great,” Karen said. “Because I do happen to have a California nursing license. I applied for it as soon as I knew you were going to San Francisco. I have it right here. So that means I’m coming.”

(I told you Karen was resourceful.)

And so they drove to San Fran in Gil’s little brown VW Rabbit and rented an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Karen got a job in the ICU at Moffitt Hospital at UCSF, and Gil completed his fellowship. They confirmed to others: they were more than friends. “It was confirmed to us as well!”

A year later, they married and soon after bought a house in Noe Valley near the Castro District.

In 1978 they were both caring for patients “with strange pneumonias and Kaposi’s sarcoma who were really sick. We kept them on reverse isolation, which protected them from us and us from them. None of us knew at that time we were treating the first cases of AIDS.” It was the era of Haight-Asbury and free love.

The Raffs moved to Albuquerque, NM. Gil practiced cardiology for 20 years, then opened a fee-based financial management company. MarketSpace Financial catered to the pension plans of doctors with whom Gil worked. Karen managed his office. Gil wrote a book, Trading the Regression Channel, about a technical method for trading. (If you’re stock market/mathematically inclined, Google the”Raff Regression Channel.”)

After 6 years, Gil returned to cardiology, starting the MRI imaging program at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI. He and Karen moved to Milford in 2002 to live in horse country with their daughter, Marika, a competitive equestrian. In recent years, Gil underwent a stem cell transplant for acute myelocytic leukemia, with his sister Genie Raff’s stem cells. (More about this in a future post.) Karen developed Cushings Syndrome (2 diagnoses per million persons per year). She underwent the removal of a benign adrenal tumor and gland. So, far, so good, on both counts.

The Raff sons and daughters-in-law are all in medicine—either MDs, PhDs or MD/PhDs. Marika, also an MD, is an Ob/Gyn resident. The Raffs raised their children in the Jewish faith. (Karen’s conversion’s another good story. Look forward to that one as well in a future post.)

2 beloved border collies, Willow and Sedona, make up the rest of the family.

This capable and congenial couple celebrated their 38th anniversary on May 26th. As Karen puts it, “We’ve continued our adventure to this day!”

(Thanks, nurses everywhere, for all your sleepless nights taking care of patients. Thanks, Karen and Gil, for everything you and your family do to help heal others. And thanks, Karen, for sharing a journey that illuminates an era.)

And they’re still crisscrossing America …

Karen and Gil on Macmillan Pier in Provincetown, MA.


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9 thoughts on “An adventure that cascades through many lives (Karen Raff, part 3)

  1. Karen D.

    I’m seriously loving these posts. I have learned so many fun and fascinating things about my friend from the other side of the state! I will totally stay tuned for future installments!

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Look forward to having you as a reader. (And contributor???)

  2. Karen Raff

    Wow, Suzy, I’ve really enjoying following my own life journey through your good story-writing. I don’t look back at my life often enough and you’ve given me a gift by putting it out there like this. Thank you.
    Read on!

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      I can’t tell you what fun I’ve had hearing and telling your story. You’re a gem! Thanks again.

    2. Suzy Farbman Post author

      You bet, girlfriend! When I tried to condense your story, it was too good to short change. so glad you enjoyed. thanks again.

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