Kristen Joy Cushing embodied service leadership and was dedicated to providing health care to underserved individuals. Kristen, who graduated from the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Physician Associate (PA) Program in 2002, was an engaged and beloved member of the greater New Haven community for over two decades. She passed away on October 18, 2021, from a cerebral aneurysm with her family by her side. Her husband, Will Cushing, PA-C, MMSc ’02, described Kristen as “a caring mother, an ever-loving wife, a beloved friend, and a trusted health care provider in her community,” in a written tribute to her soon after her death.
For Will Cushing, it is therapeutic to be focused on the endowed scholarship family and friends have created to honor Kristen’s memory and to support students who share her passion for providing care to the underserved. Kristen and Will met as undergraduates at Houghton College, where they both were biology majors and decided to pursue careers in health care. They were engaged before starting the PA Program—Cushing believes they were the first couple to enter the program together—and their wedding was between the first and second years of PA school.
Prophetic personal essay
Cushing’s deep love and respect for Kristen is palpable when he talks about her. Reflecting on her personal essay for the YSM PA Program, he says it was “amazingly prophetic. Kristen really outlined what her career went on to be,” adding, “it is beautiful to see how things she valued and was passionate about translated throughout her career.”
In her essay, Kristen, at the time Kristen Cook, described how, living in a rural community, she had experienced first-hand the problems that occur when adequate health care is not available. She wrote that she craved the knowledge to provide instruction on preventative health issues and she saw a need for “compassionate, understanding health care professionals in a world where abuse, neglect, poverty, and crime are major forces shaping the lives of the average person. I want to be out there in the thick of things, knee deep in difficult situations, giving my all to provide the help I can to the situation at hand.”
Kristen wrote that after graduating, she wanted to work “in either a rural or urban community that lacks adequate health care. I desire to work with a population of people who are unable to obtain satisfactory health care for financial or geographical reasons.”
Will Cushing describes how Kristen’s career path began and unfolded, mirroring the statements she made in her essay. He and Kristen originally thought that after PA school they would go back to upstate New York, where they had attended college. As graduation approached, while Cushing was undecided about what type of practice he wanted to get into, Kristen knew she wanted to go into primary care for the underserved. Her two primary care rotations at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center during PA school were a formative, positive experience for her—so when Cornell Scott encouraged her to apply for a job, she was excited to do so. Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH)—where Will continues to work today—similarly recruited Will, leading them to decide it made sense to start their careers in New Haven, a city which was so supportive, where they had such positive experiences during PA school, and where they were developing strong roots.
Kristen was at Cornell Scott for seven years, engaged in primary care for an underserved population, and then worked for 10 years practicing in-patient medicine at YNHH, where many of her patients were on Medicaid. In 2019, she transitioned to a role she described as her dream job, which allowed her to use her training and experience to care for a vulnerable and underserved patient population. Kristen was the advanced practice provider for the Medical Respite Program (MRP), an innovative collaboration between YNHH and Columbus House, an agency dedicated to caring for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The MRP aims to break the cycle of unhoused people going from the emergency room to the streets and back to the emergency room.
In this role, Kristen helped screen patients at YNHH, to see if they were eligible for the program and one of the dedicated respite beds at Columbus House. Unlike other clients at Columbus House, the patients in the MRP were able to stay in the facility all day for recuperative care. Kristen was passionate about being part of the team that created a medical plan for each client, including connecting them with primary care providers, helping with transportation to appointments, and also referring them to behavioral health care. An important part of the MRP is helping clients develop a housing plan.
“It was incredible for us to have someone on our team whose life mission was to provide care to individuals who were underserved. Kristen had a purity to her commitment and radiated energy to do the tough work of supporting folks going through a really difficult period in their life. This resulted in every client who engaged with her loving her, and energized and inspired the team at Columbus House,” says Margaret Middleton, CEO of Columbus House, who adds, “Kristen’s intelligence, skill, and compassion were an incredibly rare combination. The clients and team at Columbus House feel her loss deeply.”
Kristen, Will says, “truly loved to care for the vulnerable and underserved patient population and talking to her patients gave her such an appreciation for their unique life circumstances.” She also was very humble, according to Will, often noting that she was just a few bad decisions away from being in a similar position as her patients. He shares that in the past, some people questioned why Kristen would want the career path she took. Kristen looked at her career through a different lens than many people, Will explains. She was never focused on her own satisfaction, but was “truly in it for what she was able to provide and give to her patients.” He adds, “I admired and loved her for the altruism she personified, and will cherish that gift forever.”
Creating an endowed scholarship
Will Cushing expresses his eternal gratitude for the many people who reached out and wanted to help when Kristen died suddenly. His immediate needs and those of their children—Luke and Kate—were taken care of, but members of the medical community, including the PA Program, where he and Kristen had been deeply involved for two decades, and others, wanted to do more.
The idea of an endowed scholarship to honor Kristen’s memory arose. Carly Brown, MD, an internist at YNHH and friend to the Cushings, partnered with Cushing in discussing the possibility with the PA Program. With a small nucleus of donors, the Cushing family, Brown, and the other organizers quickly reached the $100,000 threshold required to establish an endowed scholarship at Yale. The hope now is to increase the Kristen Joy Cushing Memorial Scholarship Fund, to maximize the benefit it can provide to future students.
“By living her life in service of others Kristen Cushing affected many lives and made the world a better place by being in it. We are honored that Will and the Cushing family chose to create this scholarship fund at the Yale PA Program. It is a wonderful way to celebrate Kristen’s legacy and support future generations of PA students,” says PA Program Director Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C.