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Generation to Generation

SKMC Scholarship Recipient Meets Her Benefactor

They sat together on the couch, side by side. The octogenarian and the young medical student had just met, but the connection was undeniable. They were grateful for each other, and captivated by each other.

“This is Hannah,” says Amy Liss, 88, cheerfully introducing Hannah Garrigan to everyone in the living room of her Summit, New Jersey, home.

For the past three years, Hannah, 26, has been a Liss Scholar at Sidney Kimmel Medical College (SKMC), receiving a scholarship established by Amy and her late husband, Henry Liss, MD ’48, almost 30 years ago. The student met her benefactor for the first time in August, and an immediate bond was formed. As they settle in on the sofa, Amy peppers Hannah with questions, wanting to know more about the young lady who came from Chicago to attend SKMC.

They talk as if no one else is in the room, focused completely on each other. Hannah explains to Amy that she will be delaying her final year of medical school to complete a master’s degree in public health in the coming year, inspired to take the detour after reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. In the book, the former first lady writes about a friend who took “a swerve”—putting his professional studies on temporary hold to pursue a long-held dream of serving as a sports team’s mascot.

“I wanted to do my own kind of swerve; I wanted to seek out my degree in public health,” she says. Hannah, who plans on specializing in ophthalmology, will take another, smaller swerve in December when she travels to India to volunteer at the L V Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, spending a few weeks helping with research and studying public health initiatives.

Amy is all for it, becoming Hannah’s biggest cheerleader. “I think the idea of taking a swerve is wonderful,” she says. “More people should do it!”

She then shares with Hannah the wisdom of her more than eight decades on this planet: “If at any point in your life you feel you’ve made the wrong choice, extricate yourself and go on to something that fits you better. Just go with all the enthusiasm and physical energy you have, and see where it leads.”

Hannah is appreciative, not only for the sage advice, but for Amy’s generosity in creating a scholarship for students like her—those who would otherwise struggle financially to make it through medical school.

“Having your support means a lot on both a financial and emotional level. I can’t thank you enough. I would not be where I am today without people like you,” she tells Amy, explaining that the rising cost of medical education and the expense of living in Center City is overwhelming.

“The loans don’t always cover what things actually cost—and then there’s the loans themselves,” she says. “The anxiety that comes along with thinking about the debt is a lot. You think, ‘Oh that’s future me’s problem,’ but the reality is that you’re constantly reminded of it every day.”

Amy nods. She understands, and tells Hannah that is why she and her husband started the scholarship.

“Henry started Jeff in ’44, and he came to realize how fortunate he and his classmates were in having the GI Bill,” she says. The GI Bill—officially named the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, and provided veterans of WWII with funds for college education. Henry had served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy during the war, and was able to attend college and medical school without incurring any costs or loans.

“We realized that today’s medical students don’t have that kind of financial support,” Amy says. And so, the couple established the first Liss Scholarship Fund in 1991; it was designated for students with demonstrated financial need. A second fund was established in 2009 and earmarked for students with an inclination toward the practice of family medicine. In 2019, the two endowed funds were merged into one. To date, there have been 70 Liss Scholarship students with almost $900,000 awarded.

Henry Liss graduated from what was then Jefferson Medical College in 1948, and went on to become a pioneer in neurosurgery. Although he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, and completed a residency at Columbia University and a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic, he felt a special devotion to Jefferson, Amy says.

Henry just had great hopes for the youngsters who are just starting out at medical school.

“He had a loyalty to Jefferson, to the philosophy of the teaching,” she says. That loyalty and gratitude toward Jefferson led the couple to decide to establish the scholarship there. “Henry just had great hopes for the youngsters who are just starting out at medical school,” Amy says.

Amy says she, too, has great hopes for her scholars. “I hope they’re fulfilled in whatever path they choose, and I hope that they will have the same feelings of respect and appreciation for Jefferson that my husband had, and that they will do whatever they are able someday to support the school,” she says.

After a few hours together it is time to part. The octogenarian and the young medical student—connected by circumstances and genuine affection—say goodbye with a hug, a kiss, and a heartfelt promise to stay in touch.