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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Priceless Possibility : Dr. Mark Sauer gives women in their 40s and 50s the hope of becoming moms. But critics say he's creating a generation of 'Medicare orphans.'

March 19, 1995|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sauer mostly laughs off or ignores criticism. He even tells stories on himself, recalling the physician at a recent medical conference who introduced him as "the guy who makes grandmas pregnant." But he turns serious when recounting the death threats.

In early 1993, the USC-IVF office fax began spewing the missives, addressed to Sauer and Paulson as well as other local fertility specialists. The letters condemned the doctors' "discriminatory policies." In part, one read: "The police will not take this terrorist campaign/vindictive stalking seriously until you are lying in a pool of blood."

Then came telephoned bomb threats.

"I took it seriously after talking to the LAPD," Sauer says. When the police decided it was time to show Sauer how to inspect his car for bombs, he obtained a restraining order against the woman. A trial is pending.

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Despite the scary experience, Sauer's commitment to helping infertile women is unshaken.

"My work is my life," he says. "I love my work. It's a seven-day-a-week job." A 60-hour workweek, he says, is light; logging 100 hours is not unusual. He travels more than 50,000 miles a year to speak at medical meetings and other conferences.

His younger sister, Debby Mathison of Orange, remembers her brother as being "always goal-oriented."

Their father, Victor, an insurance executive, kept the family on the move. They lived first in Iowa, then Illinois, Ohio, Maryland and St. Louis, where Mark graduated from high school. At each new home, Joyce Sauer recalls, her son would have his room organized within an hour of the moving van's departure.

Summers were often spent with his maternal grandparents in the tiny farm town of Martinsburg, Iowa. Each Christmas, Sauer sends a huge floral arrangement to his 83-year-old widowed grandmother, just to make her friends crazy with envy. "I love to knock the socks off those old birds," he says with a grin. This year's display, Grandma Mary Sanchez says proudly, was so large it had to be set on the floor. "There was a three-foot pine tree, a poinsettia, chrysanthemums. . . ."

Sauer thought about becoming a veterinarian, but Francis Perkins, the old town doctor in Martinsburg, unwittingly changed his mind. "I got real sick when I was about 15 from drinking bad water," Sauer recalls. "He gave me some shots and saw me daily for a couple days. (He was) a self-sacrificing, always available man who would come to your home in the middle of the night to save you, to deliver a baby."

That experience, along with a teen-age infatuation with a movie, hooked him on medicine. "It sounds corny to say, but I was always so obsessed with 'Doctor Zhivago,' " Sauer says, "with the idea of this romantic, idealized young physician and his attempt to do the right thing and help people and yet live in touch with life and not miss life."

After Washington University in St. Louis and medical school at the University of Illinois, he decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. Lured by the offer from Harbor/UCLA Medical Center, he moved west and settled in the South Bay. His fellowship training quickly thrust him into the brave new world of egg donation.

"I loved working with him," says Sauer's former supervisor, Dr. John Buster, who now oversees the reproductive endocrinology division at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "He was intense, focused and devoted."

But Sauer's dedication also has a downside. He and wife Lynda, an attorney, separated recently after 15 years of marriage. "I don't think it's easy to be married to a professional person," Sauer says in a sad voice. "And if a professional person is married to another professional person. . . ." What happens when both partners want high-powered careers, he adds, is that "you begin to live separate existences."

The couple have three children: Julie, 11; Christopher, 8, and Jeffery, nearly 4. During football season, Sauer takes one of the kids each week to a Raiders or a Rams game. And he tries to make it to the older kids' soccer, gymnastics, cheerleading, softball and other events.

The football season tickets, Sauer says, are one indication "that I've arrived." The frequent offers to join a private practice--jobs that could quadruple his current salary--are another. So far, though, he prefers the mix of research, academics and private practice.

Anyway, Sauer says, it's hard for him to spend money on himself, with a few exceptions. When he recently traded in his Mercedes for a new Mustang GT, "the guys at the Ford dealer thought I was nuts." On a more modest level, he has been known to splurge on a feast of live crickets for the office lizard, Ben (now deceased), stowing the critters in his briefcase.

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