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Mother-Daughter Elixir

New remedy for debt incurred by medical students

Karen Rodman’s mother, Doris, wasn’t actually in the room when Karen received the manual about cranial nerves and saw the opened skull of a cadaver—the two items that signaled the start of what would be her profession.

It has been two decades since Karen (MED ’86) got that manual, but she remembers it like entrepreneurs remember the first dollar they earn. “I kept that manual for so long,” she says.

Karen and Doris Rodman

At the time, Rodman was, as usual, in her medical student outfit: white apron, gloves. “We got a lot of aprons and a lot of gloves,” she says laughing. The autopsy lab smelled faintly of formaldehyde, which made her sneeze. A group of her classmates worked with her on the cadaver as others looked at slides. As she leaned over the brain, the final remnants of her dream to become a pediatrician disappeared. When Karen called her mother with the breaking news, the daughter—not the mother—was surprised.

“I worked with a lot of neurologists,” explains Doris, a retired psychiatric social worker. When Doris mentioned to one of those doctors that from time to time her daughter, an aspiring pediatrician, showed interest in the brain, the doctor made a prediction.

“She said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but Karen is going to be a neurologist,’” Doris chuckles.

Karen—a neurologist today who has a private practice in Indianapolis—concedes it might have been inevitable that she would change her medical specialty. She grew up surrounded by the psychiatrists and psychologists her mother regularly interacted with in social work; she often overheard conversations about the brain.

Her mom offered no opinion about her daughter’s choice. Doris always let her daughter choose her own way as she raised her alone after her husband died when Karen was only a 5-year-old. Doris watched as Karen’s aspirations went from being a U.S. Supreme Court Justice to becoming a physician. She listened when her daughter told her she wanted to become a pediatrician. And, again, she listened when a young patient with AIDS died in the hospital, and Karen began to question whether or not she should become a pediatrician.

“That day the child died, Karen called me,” says Doris, “and she said, ‘Mother, he’s dead.’” Doris still remembers the sadness in her voice. “It was a sign to her.”

Doris let Karen make her own decisions, but when it came to financial support, she helped her daughter as best she could. With Doris’ help and a scholarship, Karen earned an undergraduate degree from Yale University. When Karen enrolled in medical school at Pitt, she started incurring debt—a lot of debt. Once she became a physician, Doris saw her daughter struggle through 15 years of trying to pay off medical school loans. That was when medical school only cost $20,000 a year for an out-of-state student. This year’s cost is almost double that. “I look at the tuitions today, they’re unbelievable,” says Doris. Today’s medical students at Pitt are, on average, about $140,000 in debt upon graduation.

“It basically means you’ve bought a house you can’t live in,” says Paula Davis, assistant dean of student affairs and minority programs in Pitt’s medical school. In fact, one reason that many doctors can’t work with underserved populations is that they need to make enough money to pay off their med school debt.

The financial quandary bothers the Rodmans. So when Karen and Doris received an inheritance from a relative, they decided not to invest the money in stocks or bonds. Instead, they invested in future students at Pitt through the creation of a $100,000 Charitable Gift Annuity agreement. This allows the Rodmans to receive a guaranteed annual income from their donation at a much higher rate than a typical stock dividend.

Life-income gifts, like gift annuities, are becoming an increasingly popular method of giving. Pitt, in its entire history, had received 44 annuities through the end of the end of the last fiscal year. Thanks in part to an attractive increase in the income rates offered and a reduction of the minimum gift amount, 17 new gift annuities, including the Rodmans’ gift, were contributed in just the first six months of this year.

Donors can also select how Pitt should use the gift. For the Rodmans, that choice was easy. They have chosen to create a minority scholarship in the School of Medicine.

“We would talk about Karen’s African American [undergraduate] classmates,” recalls Doris. “There were young people who, if they had the money, would have pursued an education in medicine.” These were students who Doris says were very bright and very ambitious. Their only drawback was financial.

Karen adds the perspective of medical students who found a way to finally pay off all the bills. “I’d like people to be able to avoid those financial pitfalls,” she says, frankly, of her years saddled with debt payments. “You’re trying to think of what you don’t want others to go through.”
—Erika Fricke



Notes from Novak

Al Novak

It has been a busy few months as I continue to visit with University of Pittsburgh alumni all over the country. This summer, my travels included a few stops on the West Coast, home of new Pitt Alumni Association President Keith Schaefer (CAS ’71). I met with members of the San Francisco Bay Pitt Club during its annual golf outing, a fundraiser for the scholarship fund. It was great to reconnect with the club leaders who organized this event, as well as other distinguished guests, including Ken Macha (ENGR ’80), manager of the Oakland A’s, and Tony Dorsett (CAS ’77), a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just to name a few. It is always a pleasure to visit with our clubs to witness the great work that they do for the University of Pittsburgh.

Summer is long gone, but summertime treats like ice cream are still around. I recently learned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the banana split, invented by David Strickler (PHARM 1906). Two years before graduating from Pitt, Strickler, on a trip to Atlantic City, N.J., was inspired by the soda jerks making sundaes. When he returned home to Latrobe, Pa., he got behind the counter of Strickler’s Drug Store, creating what would become the Mount Rushmore of ice cream sundaes—three scoops of ice cream stuffed between a sliced banana, topped with chocolate syrup, strawberry sauce, nuts, whipped cream, and a cherry—all for a dime.

I don’t think I will ever grow tired of learning so many interesting Pitt facts. Another one comes from the art world. As many of you know, Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol’s silkscreens are internationally recognized. Now William Ganis (CAS ’93) has published Andy Warhol’s Serial Photography (Cambridge University Press), about the artist’s “stitched photographs.”

Meanwhile, there’s another anniversary all from Pitt should take pride in—the School of Pharmacy is 125. I attended a dinner for the school, where Randy Juhl, former pharmacy dean and current vice chancellor for research conduct and compliance, was honored for his distinguished service to the school and to the University. I had a wonderful time talking with him and with many pharmacy alumni.

With all of my news, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that our billion-dollar Discover a World of Possibilities fundraising campaign total is on target. Many thanks to all who are devoted to Pitt.


Campaign Watch
Institutional Advancement is working hard to reach the goal of $1 billion, and Pitt’s alumni and friends are responding.We are now nearly three-fourths of the way there: $725 million!

—Al Novak


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