How do you get to the doctor when you don’t have a car? How do you pay the doctor or buy medicine when your low-wage job doesn’t offer health coverage? How do you communicate with the nurse if there’s a language barrier?
Perhaps nothing has illustrated health care disparities like these more keenly than the global coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos.
Dr. Matthew W. Wilson, a Furman University graduate and physician who cares for children with eye cancer, wants to do something about it. Furman announced today that Wilson is making a planned gift of $4 million to the university’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health to tackle these pressing health care issues.
“It’s clear that health care disparities are real and they need to be addressed and I’m incredibly proud of the fact that Furman has an avenue to study and provide solutions for these challenges,” he said. “The goal is to ensure a legacy for the opportunities that IACH is providing for the students at Furman, giving them the experiential education they need to pursue health care careers and be a part of the solution.”
“Dr. Wilson has proven to be a champion of health care for those who need it most and of educating future health care providers who will serve their communities,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis. “We are so grateful to Matt for his generosity and for his commitment to his alma mater and our students.”
The Institute for the Advancement of Community Health was formed about five years ago to focus on improving the health of the Greenville community, said Executive Director Susan Ybarra.
A good part of its work is helping the one-third of Furman students who want to pursue health careers by offering internships that make them more competitive for graduate school, and enable them to better understand their chosen field, she said.
The institute works with community partners such as Prisma Health, Bon Secours St. Francis Health System and the Piedmont Health Foundation on research and internships alike, she said.
So students might spend time at a hospital observing general surgery, for example, or at a cardiac rehab center shadowing a physical therapist.
Or they may pursue non-clinical careers focused on education, poverty, food insecurity and other social determinants that nonetheless have an impact on people’s health, she said.
“The biggest thing this money will help us do is to increase the access of students to these experiences,” she said. “No doubt the impact will be felt for many, many years to come and will impact hundreds, if not more, lives – both students and communities.”
The Master of Science in Community Engaged Medicine also will benefit from the gift, according to the program’s director and biology professor, Victoria Turgeon.
Now in its third year, this one-year master’s program blends the biomedical sciences with population health to advance students academically while involving them in underserved areas of the community. It also seeks to increase diversity and cultural competence among health care providers.
“The students we have are all very passionate about breaking down social disparities of health and increasing diversity in health care,” she said. “We are trying to put students out there who are not only diverse themselves, but understand and value the importance of diversity so they can reach all their patients better.”
Wilson, a native of Atlanta and son of an ophthalmologist, said he fell in love with Furman after visiting his older brother at the university when he was a student.
A biology major, he graduated in 1986 and attended medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also did his ophthalmology residency. Oncology and reconstructive surgery fellowships followed and he began practice in 1997.
Now 56, he is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where he is also the vice chair for Academic Affairs. He is also the chief of ophthalmology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he holds the chair of excellence in pediatric ophthalmology.
He attributes his success to his time at Furman.
“A large part of everything I have today is based on what Furman provided to me, which was not only a biology and pre-med education, but a comprehensive liberal arts education,” he said. “As valuable as biology, chemistry and physics were, the humanities, the history and the philosophy were equally important to shape who I am today.”
A long-time advocate of real-world experiences in addition to classroom education, Wilson has often invited Furman students to spend summer internships in Memphis, cementing his ties to IACH. And because a large focus of his career has been global disparities in treating eye cancer, it became clear that IACH and the work it does addressing these disparities warranted his support.
“Philanthropy is never about you as an individual, it’s about the projects you’re passionate about,” he said. “And I feel it needs to be fully supported in perpetuity to make sure all Furman students have access to these opportunities.”
The gift, which will fund an endowment and existing scholarships, also serves to highlight The Furman Advantage, which Turgeon describes as an ethos that a student’s passion be matched with hands-on experiences.
Both Ybarra and Turgeon were overwhelmed by the gift, saying that it validates the institute’s mission.
“Matt is an incredible person … and the fact he chose to invest in the future of IACH is incredible,” said Ybarra. “I am so grateful that he would decide to partner with us and make this investment.”
“Matt is a champion for the Furman students and the Furman community. He gives of himself in so many ways,” said Turgeon. “I am humbled by not just the gift itself, but the fact that he recognizes the importance of the work being done by IACH and the MS-CEM, and wants to invest in our future.”