Medical School Scholarships Honor, Inspire

Medical students earning scholarships to combat the increasing costs of medical school have shared how funding has shaped their outlook on practicing in the medical field.  In 2015, Shenel A. (Franklin) Heisler, received the $1,000 Myrtle Siegfried, MD, and Michael Vigilante, MD, Scholarship available to first-year medical students who are residents of Berks, Lehigh, or Northampton counties. She attends the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Franklin said, "During my undergraduate education I started to work in different health care settings which made me realize that I wanted to become a physician. The time doctors spent learning about the human body in every way allowed them to use an exponential amount of information to treat their patient in the best possible form. By committing to be a physician, they were committing to a career of lifelong education that would continuously improve the life of others."

To help local medical students offset the cost of education, former Foundation trustee, Elena Pascal, and her sister, Carla Vigilante, established this scholarship in 1999 through The Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society in memory of their parents who were Allentown physicians.  Mrs. Pascal said, "Shenel embodies the spirit of the way my parents cared for patients."

Franklin encourages others to apply for scholarships through the Foundation and as far as medical school, she offers this advice: "Work hard, and pursue this dream for the right reasons. If you are truly interested in helping people for the rest of your life, I feel that this is a great way to do it. Have perseverance, and do not doubt yourself. There will certainly be some bumps in the road, but as long as you are willing to put the time and effort in, you can do it!"

Mrs. Pascal says her parents were a dynamic duo who practiced medicine together. Her mother was a general practitioner raised on a farm in Stony Run, graduating youngest in her class from The George Washington University School of Medicine. Her father was an obstetrician-gynecologist who hailed from New York, graduating from Marquette School of Medicine. Though her parents’ families were of little means, they sought better lives for their children.

The latest winner in 2016, Lucas T. Wittman, of Macungie, attends Harvard Medical School, in Boston. He said that his appreciation for education and desire to practice medicine in underserved communities has stemmed from his own humble upbringing as the youngest in his small-town household of seven.  He says, "Motivated in part by my own socioeconomic background, I dedicated a significant portion of my undergraduate years seeking to better understand some of the implications involved at the interface of society, neuroscience, and health by leading research projects on poverty and pediatric brain development at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.”

He outlines his impressive professional goals.  "First and foremost, I hope to be a compassionate physician who is able to console and care for patients through some of their most vulnerable times,” says Wittman. “In addition to practicing clinical medicine, I also realize the importance of getting to know the needs of specific communities. This knowledge will not only lead to better patient care on the individual level, but it can also be used to address population-level problems."

Wittman says, "I have sought to further apply my passions domestically as a strategic development intern for programs designed to improve the health of socially vulnerable and medically complex patients at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as globally in leading the development of a public health intervention for indigent communities in the Amazon."

For more than 50 years, Mrs. Pascal said her parents shared offices on the first floor of the family home practicing the “art of medicine” seeking  to contribute in a positive way to the development of patients and their families. Their patients were their friends, and medicine became an integral part of daily life. Telephones were constantly ringing and their two waiting rooms were "standing room only." They took their time-focusing on each patient as if they were part of the family. Mrs. Pascal’s husband, Joseph Pascal, MD, fondly recalls his first meeting with his future mother-in-law. "She was cradling a phone in one hand giving insulin orders, while stirring the batter for a cake in the other." At a time when women were a rarity in medicine, Dr. Siegfried was a pioneer.

Mrs. Pascal says, “Our father was a storyteller. His flamboyant, outgoing personality, coupled with his colorful tales of his life in the melting pot of New York's Lower East Side, amused his patients and colleagues. He never seemed to need sleep, spending hours on end in the hospital or his office. He welcomed thousands of babies into the world, and cared for many patients by serenading them with his rendition of ‘Santa Lucia.’”

After their parents' deaths in 1996, countless letters ·were sent from their patients to the daughters, commenting on how the physicians had influenced their lives and had cared for their physical and mental well-being. They felt that their parents taught them to care about friends and family, yet also give back to the community that was so much a part of their lives. The medical community in the Lehigh Valley was their life, and both parents were members of the Lehigh County Medical Society, the Pennsylvania Medical Society, and the American Medical Association for more than 50 years. Dr. Siegfried was also a member of the Pennsylvania Medical Society Alliance.

The daughters decided to create a lasting tribute in honor of their parents. “Working with staff at the Foundation, we established the scholarship in their memory. They accomplished two goals by creating a lasting remembrance of our parents and their achievements, and returning something to the profession their parents loved,” says Mrs. Pascal.

Our father always said, "Whatever you want to do, you can do it." However, today's high cost of a medical education can sometimes prevent someone from attaining that dream of becoming a doctor. The average, annual medical school tuition and fees has risen from $16,301 in 1990 to $46,963 in 2016. Coupled with the scarcity of low-cost sources of funding, obtaining a medical education becomes increasingly difficult. Through this endowment, they hope to give medical students a chance to achieve their dream. “My husband and I are charitably inclined so when we reviewed our estate plan, we chose to give a planned gift to the Foundation. After our deaths, these assets will be used to continue the Myrtle Siegfried, MD, and Michael Vigilante, MD, Scholarship Fund. My sons understand that this endowment is important to us, and we have encouraged them to also contribute so the fund will continue to grow, helping more students,” says Mrs. Pascal.

David Carrier, MD, who received the scholarship in 2006, a practicing family physician in Nashville, Tenn., said, “As someone interested in serving underserved patient populations, it was important for me to try to minimize my debt coming out of medical school.  The assistance of the Myrtle Siegfried, MD, and Michael Vigilante, MD, scholarship was a vital part of enabling me to pursue a practice that is more about providing care for patients who really need it than about maximizing physician salary.”

“Philanthropy is a personal decision,” says Mrs. Pascal. “We cannot adequately express the satisfaction we receive from establishing this endowment in honor of our parents. This scholarship fund is a lasting tribute to their beliefs and to their love of medicine. If, through this fund, we help someone achieve their dream of becoming a doctor - as our parents achieved theirs - we know we've made them proud.”

Loretta Stein, MD, who received the scholarship in 2007, a practicing ophthalmologist at the U. S. Naval Medical Center in Yokosuka, Japan said, “I applied and was accepted to the U.S. Navy Health Scholarship Program for medical school, which provides participants with tuition and a stipend throughout medical school in exchange for four years of service as a practicing physician.  This alleviated a significant portion of medical school debt for me, but even so, I had to take out private loans in order to cover the cost of living in Boston. I also had federal and private loans for my undergraduate education and master’s degree.  Without the Navy and the Myrtle Siegfried, MD and Michael Vigilante, MD Scholarship, I would be more than $800,000 in debt at this point in my career.”

Foundation Executive Director Heather Wilson says, “We are inspired every day by our scholarship winners and the success they find in this profession that ultimately helps humankind.  Throughout 2017, we will be featuring their stories and their advice to current medical students on our website. We invite you to share your experience with this scholarship or any of the other scholarships we offer to medical students.”

The Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, a nonprofit affiliate of the Pennsylvania Medical Society sustains the future of medicine in Pennsylvania by providing programs that support medical education, physician health, and excellence in practice. It has been helping to finance education for more than 60 years.

To find out more about scholarships call the Foundation at (717) 558-7852 or visit the Student Financial Services page under  Want to donate to a scholarship or create a naming opportunity? Call the Philanthropy Department at (717) 558-7846.