Shortly after Walter Newberry Kernan, MD, professor of medicine (general medicine) joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1989, he became Liesa Bing Allen’s primary care physician. Their doctor-patient relationship would last nearly three decades until her death on July 19, 2017, six days shy of her 87th birthday.
Throughout her time as Kernan’s patient, Allen, a successful attorney and corporate officer during her career, took an interest in his research, which focused on education in primary care and secondary stroke prevention. “They had a relationship of mutual respect,” says Allen’s stepdaughter, Jane Allen.
Early in that relationship, Allen donated money to the medical school to support education in the Department of Medicine. The gift was directed toward improving the training of students and residents at the school. “This funding was instrumental in several studies that used novel databases at Yale to examine and improve emerging practices in office-based education,” says Kernan.
As her final years approached, Allen wanted her financial support of Yale School of Medicine to continue after her death. She shared this wish with Kernan. “She invited me to help with the language for a gift so that the funds could be used to support ideas and purposes that we had discussed over the years, particularly education and stroke prevention,” he says.
Nearly nine months after Liesa’s death, her husband of 35 years, Milton Allen, and Jane Allen presented Kernan with the final installment of this bequest, a check for $1 million. When Allen’s family learned about the bequest and her previous donations, which Liesa—who kept her philanthropy private—had not disclosed to them, they say they were not surprised. Milton Allen describes his wife as a principled person with a long, though quiet, history of giving, including completely funding the educations of several children she had encountered through the years. “Dr. Kernan was another person that she ran into that she wanted to do something for,” says Milton Allen. “So, she did it.”
Her principles grew from a personal history of adversity. When she was a young girl, Allen and her parents fled Nazi Germany in 1938 for the United States. “Those experiences as a refugee affected her character and how she dealt with people for the rest of her life,” says Milton Allen. “She was always very concerned people were treated fairly,” says Jane Allen, which motivated her philanthropy.
As Kernan learned more about Allen through the years, he came to know her concerns with fairness and equity. Occasionally, Allen would tell him stories that, Kernan says, “gave me an insight into her brilliance, her moral compass and the sensibilities that underlaid her grace, strength, and generosity. She would tell stories about her life which affected my awareness of bigotry and the opportunities we all have to treat each other with respect and care. I learned a lot from her. I am sure many other people can say the same.”
Kernan plans to use some of her funds to explore how health care payment disparities may affect primary care education among medical students and residents. Some teaching institutions establish separate clinics or care pathways for patients who are uninsured or underinsured. Research has not yet demonstrated how widespread this practice is or its consequences. However, Kernan says, “We risk conveying the message to students and residents that it’s okay to treat different patients differently. I think Mrs. Allen would be interested in this issue because she had a very strong interest in helping those with limited resources to have a fair opportunity.”
Liesa Allen’s final gift also helped Kernan complete secondary analyses of data from the Insulin Resistance Intervention after Stroke (IRIS) trial, leading to publication in the journal Circulation, among others. The main IRIS trial showed that a medication lowering cellular resistance to insulin reduces the risk of subsequent stroke in insulin-resistant, nondiabetic patients who have previously experienced a stroke. He plans to devote more of the funds to studying novel stroke prevention methods.
Kernan says he is grateful that Allen entrusted him with her bequest. “My job,” he says, “is to be sure that the good that comes out of this opportunity is commensurate with her intentions and the goodwill in her heart.”