Furman University announced that Dr. Matthew W. Wilson, a Furman University graduate, is making a planned gift of $4 million to the university’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health that will fund an endowment and existing scholarships.
Through the gift, Wilson aims to help tackle pressing health care questions such as – 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? – issues that are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and disproportionately impact African Americans and Latinos.
Wilson said, “It’s clear that health care disparities are real, and they need to be addressed. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that Furman has an avenue to study and provide solutions for these challenges. 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. Part of the institute’s purpose is to help the roughly one-third of students enrolled at Furman 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 explained.
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.
Ybarra said 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 affect people’s health.
“The biggest thing this money will help us accomplish is to increase the access to these experiences by students,” she said. “No doubt the impact of the gift will be felt for many, many years to come, and it will benefit hundreds, if not more, lives – in terms of 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, the 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,” Turgeon said. “We are trying to put students out there who are not only diverse themselves but also 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 was drawn to Furman after visiting his older brother at the university when he was a student. A biology major, the younger Wilson graduated in 1986 and attended medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also served his ophthalmology residency. After pursuing oncology and reconstructive surgery fellowships, he began practice in 1997.
Now 56, Wilson 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 chief of ophthalmology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he holds the chair of excellence in pediatric ophthalmology.
“Philanthropy is never about you as an individual, it’s about the projects you’re passionate about,” Wilson said. “And I feel IACH needs to be fully supported in perpetuity to make sure all Furman students have access to these opportunities.”