Is there such a thing as a self-made man or woman? Thomas E. Flynn, MD ’86, doesn’t think so. Rather, he believes each successful person has had some help along the way. For him, that helping hand was GW Trustee Emeritus Sheldon Cohen, AA ’48, BA ’50, JD ’52. Originally waitlisted at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Tom credits the former GW Board of Trustees chairman with helping him get an interview which ultimately secured his acceptance.
“Sheldon Cohen believed in me,” Tom says, “and I will never forget that August Sunday when the phone rang. I got the spot of someone who dropped out the day before classes started…I thought I was dreaming.”
Tom’s dream of attending GW came true that day, and now, more than 30 years later, he and his wife, Susan Scherbel, are giving back to ensure future generations have the same opportunity. The couple has pledged $100,000 to establish the Flynn Family Adopt-a-Doc Scholarship Fund, which will support five students for the duration of their medical education at GW.
“There are so many obstacles to young doctors these days,” Tom explains. “If we can give a few students more options to fund their education, it’s very gratifying.”
Surprisingly, Tom, whose father and grandfather were both eye doctors, didn’t originally plan on attending medical school. It wasn’t until a desire to feel “necessary and proud” of his life’s work inspired him to switch from pre-law to pre-med. The transition was nothing short of challenging, and when it came time to apply to medical schools, Tom felt many institutions wouldn’t look beyond some of his grades, especially in organic chemistry. GW was the exception, with a little help from Sheldon Cohen.
“I believe the key to being a great doctor isn’t necessarily an A in organic chemistry,” says Tom. “That’s what I told my interviewers, and GW actually listened.”
As a student, he gravitated towards neurosurgery but soon transitioned into ophthalmology to study and treat diseases of the retina, which, Tom clarifies, is actually part of the brain.
“The retina is the most accessible part of the brain and vascular system and also provides tremendous insight into what’s happening in the entire body,” explains Tom. “I can’t imagine a better specialty for me: I like solving mysteries about my patients.”
Tom says he “loved virtually every day I was at GW.” From the diverse student body with a range of experiences and backgrounds, to the maturity and kindness he experienced among his peers, he still remembers his classmates as above and beyond the typical medical school class, a sincere compliment coming from someone who now has a quarter century of experience educating medical students, residents, and fellows.
When Tom continued on to his residency, he began to truly appreciate the training he’d received. Selected as one of only three ophthalmology residents at Cornell University Medical College in New York, he felt “prepared from day one.” Tom has since built an impressive career treating retinal diseases, and he attributes much of his success to the education he received at GW.
“I am a really good doctor because of GW’s training—it was practical, hands on, humane—the best and ultimately most important educational experience of my life,” he says. “I owe GW everything for giving me that education and decided long ago that I wanted to do something meaningful for the school.”
That’s when the Adopt-a-Doc Scholarship program caught his attention. The SMHS scholarship program provides alumni and friends the opportunity to support GW medical students throughout all four years of medical school.
“Just giving money to a blind fund or entity isn’t terribly satisfying,” says Tom. “It is so personal to actually see and get to know the people we are helping.”
Tom and his wife had the opportunity to meet with the medical students who will benefit from their scholarship fund in early April; the first of what they hope will be many interactions with these young scholars. Also in attendance: Sheldon Cohen, the man who made such an impact on Tom just as he was beginning his medical career.
“These scholarships are more than just an opportunity to help SMHS students as they begin their own journeys; this is an opportunity to recognize the impact Sheldon had on us,” says Tom. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without his help, and it was important to us for Sheldon to be there as we begin to pay it forward.”
As the five beneficiaries of the Flynn Family Adopt-a-Doc Scholarship and the entire incoming GW Medical School Class of 2019—including Tom and Susan’s daughter, Erin Flynn—begin their medical careers, Tom Flynn has a few words of advice for the aspiring doctors: never forget your obligation is to your patients and their care.
“Get out and get involved—tell regulators, your patients, and the public about what is happening and how it can be better,” he suggests. “The world would be a much better place if each of us just concentrates on doing the right thing for our patients.”
Scholarships like GW’s Adopt-a-Doc program are an important way to support students as part of Making History: The Campaign for GW. Learn more about how you can get get involved by visiting campaign.gwu.edu today.