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Lightening the load for the physicians of the future

Sanfurd Bluestein, who has been a top-ranked tennis player in the New York area, continues to replenish a scholarship fund for Yale medical students.

“I don’t believe in giving for concrete,” declares Sanfurd G. Bluestein, M.D., in as pithy a summation of his pragmatic approach to philanthropy as one could imagine. While recognizing the necessity of bricks and mortar for the School of Medicine, Bluestein, a 1946 alumnus, has unabashedly thrown his weight behind the school’s flesh and blood—the people, both faculty and students, who imbue the classrooms and labs with life and meaning.

“In general, my goal is to continue to give at a regular rate to scholarships for young people,” says Bluestein, and his latest gift to the medical school—$500,000 that will add to a scholarship fund he established in 1996 on the occasion of his 50th reunion—is a case in point. “I’ve given to this scholarship fund regularly over the years,” he says. “I intend as long as I live to keep doing that.”

In all, Bluestein’s steady contributions to the School of Medicine over more than 25 years exceed $1 million, including support for the Department of Diagnostic Radiology, which also received support from his latest gift. In 1980 he endowed a fund in that department to support the Bluestein lecture, an annual presentation on biomedical imaging by a distinguished invited speaker.

Bluestein, a retired radiologist known to friends as “Sandy,” received some unrequested help paying his own medical school tuition—from the United States Army. He enrolled at the School of Medicine during the war years, just as the Army “took over” his class, enlisting Bluestein and about 40 other students in the Army Specialized Training Program, or ASTP.

“We were paid for, and they told us what to do, which led to some pretty weird circumstances,” he says. “We had to stand in formation every morning at 7 a.m. We had to attend things we didn’t want to attend; when Tommy Dorsey appeared on campus we had to go whether we liked it or not, because it was ‘good for the Army.’”

Thanks to the basketball skills Bluestein had honed as a point guard at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pa., some of these burdens were eventually lifted. A lieutenant in charge of the medical school’s soldiers knew of Bluestein’s hoops prowess and asked him to assemble a basketball team to join a league formed by the Army from some of the thousands of ASTP students then at Yale College.

“We had a small gymnasium at the medical school, and I knew we could put together a good team, because many of the students had played college basketball, as I had. I agreed to give him a team if he’d give us special dispensation. I extracted a bargain from him, but I also told him that our team would be good enough that if he bet on us he’d make a lot of money, which he did,” Bluestein recalls. “So I became a favorite of his, and we got to live a little better than the other guys. For one thing, we didn’t have get up and stand in formation at 7:00 in the morning anymore.”

Despite this minor wartime triumph, tennis is Bluestein’s real game. Though he hasn’t played competitively in 2007—he decided to take “an aging year,” he says—as recently as last year he was the top-ranked player in his age group in the metropolitan New York City area, and he plays for recreation several times a week.

Bluestein’s other great love is the New York City Opera, where he has been on the board of directors since 1978. He is the oldest member of the executive committee, and his contributions to the opera have helped many aspiring singers establish their careers.

As a practicing radiologist in New Jersey for nearly 50 years, Bluestein was something of a pioneer, performing some of the first cancer treatments with radioactive cobalt in the 1950s. He also performed some of the earliest brain scans, using radioactive mercury to diagnose tumors. “I started scanning before scanning was a word,” he says, “and I did chemotherapy before there were oncologists.”

Bluestein retired from practice in 1996 at age 75, and he now divides his time between Montclair, N.J., New York City, and Boca Raton, Fla. “I adored practicing, and I never looked on it as anything other than a privilege,” he says. “I thought it was an honor to be a doctor, something special.”

But the financial strains that accompany medical education present hardships for many who wish to follow Bluestein’s footsteps into clinical practice. According to the medical school’s Office of Education, the average debt of the 2007 School of Medicine students who graduated with financial obligations is more than $115,000.

For Bluestein, scholarships are the solution. “That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “We should be giving gifts, not loans, because these students are never going to be able to pay this back. I feel very strongly about scholarships, and every little bit helps.”