May 22, 2014

Classmates unite to create medical scholarships

Whether it’s former classmates or perfect strangers coming together to support a great cause, there is no denying that there is strength in numbers.

Whether it’s former classmates or perfect strangers coming together to support a great cause, there is no denying that there is strength in numbers.

Classmates of David Freedy, who died in 1992, are raising funds for a School of Medicine scholarship in his memory.

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) Class of 1993 is a prime example of what a group can accomplish when it works together toward a goal. As its members prepare to gather in October for Reunion Weekend they are raising funds for a scholarship that they established in memory of their friend and classmate, David Freedy.

Freedy, tall, lean and athletic, was by all accounts an outstanding student and friend. He came to VUSM from the University of Notre Dame.

“He was accepted everywhere and was not turned down at one medical school. He went to Vanderbilt and his heart was there from the minute he stepped onto the campus. He just loved Vanderbilt. We fell in love with the place as well,” said David’s mother, Judith Freedy.

Freedy, who quickly became a class favorite with his outgoing personality and sense of fun and adventure, was diagnosed with gastric cancer in March of his third year of medical school. Once diagnosed, he exhibited exceptional courage and perseverance in his battle with the disease. He remained in medical school and continued to care for patients until just weeks before his death six months later, in October 1992.

David Freedy’s outgoing nature and courage and grace in fighting his cancer inspired his classmates to create a scholarship in his memory.

“He was one of my best friends. We became friends our first year and moved into a house with several other classmates. I lived with David during my second year and a portion of my third year until he got sick,” said his friend and classmate Robert Jotte, M.D., Ph.D. “He was a very athletic person, extraordinarily outgoing; I don’t think anyone had any ill thoughts of him. David was a very amicable, likeable young man who made a lot of friends at Vanderbilt.”

After David died, Jotte and other friends and classmates established the David Freedy Memorial Fund, now the David Freedy 1993 School of Medicine Class Scholarship.

“We got a lot of help and insight from professors who were at Vanderbilt at the time, including Dr. (Robert) Collins who was our primary guidance. We submitted many different ideas, and the scholarship was supported by the school administration,” Jotte said.

More than 20 years later, the scholarship fund continues to support a medical student in recognition of leadership and courage he or she has demonstrated in facing and overcoming challenges.

Members of the School of Medicine Class of 1993 who joined together to create a scholarship in memory of classmate David Freedy include (front row, from left) Elizabeth Yerkes, Donna Crowe, George Robinson II, Felice Adler-Shohet, James Johnson, (back row, from left) Andrew Moore, James O’Leary, Michael Smith, David Hudson, Robert Steele, Eric Zacharias and Mark Grieb.

“The Freedy Scholarship, and others like it, accomplishes so much good,” said Bonnie Miller, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs and senior associate dean for Health Sciences Education. “For our students, they mitigate the burden of educational debt, which in turn allows them to consider all specialties and career settings independent of future earnings. For the donors, they are wonderful ways of honoring and remembering loved ones while contributing to purposes they strongly believe in.”

The current recipient of the scholarship is Ilyas Mohamed Eli.

Eli grew up in Nashville and earned his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt. He graduated from VUSM earlier this month and will do his residency in neurosurgery at the University of Utah Affiliated Hospitals.

“There are a lot of added costs to the fourth year. I had to do two away rotations for one month, which have extra costs…that included flights, hotels and sometimes car rentals. I returned to some places for second looks. All these extra costs add up. The scholarship helped with that, and I didn’t need to take out extra loans. I really appreciate the scholarship,” Eli said.

As the members of the Class of ’93 make their plans to return to campus for Reunion 2014, their thoughts will be with their friend and classmate. Their reunion fundraising efforts will help ensure that Freedy’s legacy lives on.

“David was able to pull everyone in the class together and show them how to have fun and teach them the world goes on outside the classroom, the library and books. I think that is a great memory that people in our class have of him, and we feel some sort of ownership of building on that memory and legacy by donating to the class scholarship fund in his name,” said Jotte, who still keeps in touch with David’s parents, Henry and Judith.

“The Vanderbilt family was wonderful from day one,” Judith Freedy said. “David was such a promising young man and was viewed that way by everyone around us. The comfort we received from Vanderbilt took a lot of our pain away so we could focus on comforting other people.”

Scholarships established by groups and individuals alike are an important component of the School of Medicine’s Scholarship Initiative, an effort to raise awareness and funds for the scholarship endowment.

Those interested in learning more about the impact of scholarships or who want to make a gift can do so at

The Young Ambassadors are another great example of strength in numbers.

This group of three dozen young professionals is harnessing their social, work and family networks to raise money for innovative cancer research at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC). Several of the members and many of their loved ones have benefitted from the exceptional care offered by VICC.

EB and Todd Jackson were among the founding members of the philanthropic group. Like others in the organization, fighting cancer is a personal mission for the Jacksons. They reached out to other young professionals with their own cancer stories, people like Kylee Ervin.

Ervin, born and raised in a small farming community in central Illinois, joined the group in October 2013.

“I joined because cancer had just taken one of the most influential men in my life, my grandfather. He lost his battle to brain/lung cancer in July 2013,” she said.

Ervin said she hopes the Young Ambassadors are able to provide some sort of positive impact on the lives of people fighting cancer.

“If we can do this through funding cutting edge research and it changes one life for the good, then we have succeeded,” said Ervin, who is the president of Diamond Coach and has been custom designing and building Prevost buses for celebrities for almost 14 years.

“To date, awarding these brilliant scientists grants for their life-changing research has certainly been the highlight of my Young Ambassador experience,” she said.

The Young Ambassadors raised $41,000 in the first round of fundraising in 2009, exceeding their goal of $35,000 slated for the first Discovery Grant. Personal contacts — phone calls, conversations and letters — generated the most fundraising dollars, but the group also turned to social media like Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness. In 2013, they raised $105,000 for three Discovery Grants.

Each spring, they formally kick off their fundraising efforts and set a fundraising goal. In the fall, they have an “award symposium” where they hear presentations from cancer researchers who are early in their careers. Each project is considered sound science that VICC would fund if possible.

The group has developed selection criteria based on the scientists’ ability to communicate their ideas in a compelling and creative way. They review about a half-dozen projects. The group asks questions and eventually selects recipients based on the funds they have raised.

Ken Lau, Ph.D., a new assistant professor in Cell and Developmental Biology, is a Discovery Grant recipient. He is out to determine the rules that lead to cells converting from one type to another, for example, when a healthy cell becomes a cancer cell.

“At Vanderbilt, our lab is uniquely positioned to make a significant impact on decoding heterogeneous tumor organization,” Lau said. “The development of high-risk, high-reward innovations would not be possible without the generous support from the VICC Young Ambassador’s program.

“We are extremely fortunate to have this program to enable the development of highly innovative and risky approaches that will keep Vanderbilt at the forefront of cancer research for years to come.”

The group has forged strong relationships with Scott Hiebert, Ph.D., the Hortense B. Ingram Professor of Cancer Research, Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Endowed Professor of Oncology and director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, as well as with the VICC development team and Board of Overseers.

As a condition of receiving funding, each researcher commits to stay connected with the group and provide updates on the research it has funded.

“The Young Ambassadors bring a tremendous amount of energy and passion to the process, and they clearly enjoy the award symposium where they meet the scientists, hear what they are trying to do, and envision the impact of their gift,” said Hiebert, who serves as a liaison between the Young Ambassadors and the scientists.

“This type of philanthropy is the venture capital that a young investigator needs to be able to generate preliminary data and then go out to the NIH and the American Cancer Society to get other grants. These Discovery Grants have a lot of impact for the investigators, and it continues for some period of time.”