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Rising to the top

June 18, 2013

Mammoth High School graduate one of top medical students in country

When former Mammoth High School graduate Clifford Sheckter graduated summa cum laudefrom the Keck School of Medicine at USC a few weeks ago, he had every prestigious residency program in the country chasing after him.

Not only did he graduate at the top of his class, he also received the American Medical Association Education and Research Fund’s Clinical Award (one of two students of 160) and its Outstanding Student Award (the only student to get this award).

Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford—the Mammoth High School graduate (class of 2005) could take his pick (he chose Stanford, and will specialize in craniofacial surgery, beginning this fall).

But it wasn’t just his grades that had the top schools scrambling to compete for him.

It was something else—born of his time spent in Mammoth Lakes and at Mammoth High.

“Living in a small town, you can’t burn people and not pay for it,” he said. “You can in a big city, you can get lost in all the people, but in Mammoth, everyone knows everyone and if you do burn someone, it will come back to you.

“You don’t have that luxury, of not treating people right. In Mammoth, I was a good student, yes, but I was also into dirt bike racing, I played sports, I taught at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. I think this made me able to talk to people across socioeconomic levels and across different cultures.

“A small minority of my classmates went to public schools. Many come from very wealthy families and went to private schools. Many of them don’t know how to talk to people that are different from them. I think this ability, seen in how I treated my patients during my clinical work, is what pushed me to the top.”

Sheckter, 26, is the son of Mammoth real estate agent and amateur weather forecaster Howard Sheckter and Donna Sheckter, a nurse at Mammoth Hospital.

He is engaged to be married to Cassandra Gaedt, a practicing intellectual property attorney, and the two will be moving to Stanford this summer.

Sheckter was born and raised in Mammoth and he comes across as a warm, thoughtful, self-possessed man.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“I was a fat kid in school, although I am not now. I got teased a lot,” he said. “I took solace in school. I was good at it. I got straight A’s.”

Such troubles may have been a blessing in disguise.

“It was painful, but it made me work harder, it made me determined not to fail,” he said.

That determination served him well when he was accepted to UCLA after high school.

 

‘How could you let me think I could do this?’

“At the end of my first week, I called up my parents, I was in tears,” Sheckter said, about his first week at UCLA.

“I said, ‘How could you do this, how could you let me think I could do this?’ Almost every student in my class came from top high schools from all over California; they had all had extra AP classes. I was really scared. I thought, what if I fail now?”

Then the lessons he had learned at Mammoth High kicked in.

“I think the fear of failure really motivated me,” he said.

It was a tough several years. There was no goofing off, no Friday night parties, and little-to-no free time.

“You can’t have it all,” Sheckter said. “If you want something enough, if you want to be successful, you have to give up something.”

“It was a rough time at high school for him, socially,” said his father, Howard Sheckter. “I think it drove him harder, to be better. There are two ways he could have gone; he could have cowered, or he could have pushed harder. He pushed harder. We are so proud of him.”

Retired Mammoth High teacher Kirk Stapp was one of Clifford Sheckter’s teachers.

Stapp said he wasn’t surprised to learn that Sheckter was considered to be one of the top medical students in the country.

“He was so motivated, and even when he was teased, it didn’t deter him,” Stapp said.

“He pulled the education out of me, out of the system. He was conscientious. He was always working. He was curious and always asking questions.

“If he doesn’t think his success was mostly due to those character qualities, he’s missing something about himself. Students like him are the reason I went into teaching.”

Stapp noted, too, that Sheckter had two deeply involved parents, and singled them out for making a difference.

“My parents allowed a certain liberty in how we talked about things,” Sheckter said. “They were always asking us (he and his younger sister Natalie) questions, always asking us to think about things. I am so grateful to them. They never doubted me.”

 

Motocross and medicine

Growing up in Mammoth, Sheckter found another clue to his future that might have eluded him if he had grown up in less rural area—motocross.

There might not seem like there is much of a connection between medicine and motocross, but to the young Sheckter, there was.

The thing about dirt bikes is they break down and have to be fixed.

Sheckter found he was very good at fixing broken things.

“I was always taking things apart and rebuilding them or fixing broken engines,” he said.

It wasn’t that far of a stretch to think of medicine as a career.

“I had to be a surgeon. There was no other option,” he said. “When you rebuild something, the moment you turn it over and it works, that was so amazing. I had the skills to do that and I wanted to do it with people.”

The fact that his mother, Donna, was a nurse at Mammoth Hospital made medicine a natural decision as well.

He said he spent a lot of time at the hospital with her.

Dr. Michael Karch is an orthopedic surgeon at Mammoth Hospital and remembers the young Sheckter from the days when the student did a month rotation with him.

Karch wasn’t surprised at Sheckter’s accomplishments.

“He was young but he was so focused,” Karch said. “He knew what he wanted. I won’t be surprised if we are reading about his accomplishments in the future.”

Clifford Sheckter, minutes before he had learned he had "matched" the surgical residency at Stanford. "I was just walking over to take the letter to my family, before I opened it," he said. "That was an intense day!" Photo/Submitted
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