Giving in Action: A Vision for Change

From the Summer 2017 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

Steve Kutner, M.D.,’65, restored sight to thousands of refugees during his life, while also helping patients in his Georgia Eye Clinic to preserve their sight. Kutner died in 2016, but his spirit of giving continues.

Although Kutner founded an international nonprofit, Project Vision, Jeanney Kutner says her late husband saw himself as a humanitarian, not a philanthropist, because he loved the hands-on nature of his work.

“His favorite thing about medicine, and eye surgery, was the way his patients could have almost instant and transformative results. He also loved the interaction and getting to know the people he worked with both at home and abroad. That was the reason he loved practicing medicine,” Jeanney said.

A life-changing trip abroad in 1987 to provide eye care for refugees in Ethiopia inspired Kutner to do more global medical charity work. He founded Project Vision to serve refugees and others who did not have access to eye care. Due to demand for services beyond eye surgery, Project Vision then grew to become Jewish Healthcare International (JHI) — an organization devoted to enhancing health care for impoverished communities in countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Israel, Cuba and Haiti. He said it was his life’s work, Jeanney recalled.

Kutner’s unusual medical career had an equally atypical start. After completing an undergraduate engineering degree, Army and Airforce service, and a brief stint for Rand Corporation, he decided he would rather be in medicine. Someone suggested he apply to Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Nashville in the ‘60s might have seemed an odd choice for an older, working engineer from Long Island, but Kutner persisted. He visited and felt welcome by the school’s faculty and loved its collaborative approach to medicine,” Jeanney said.

Jeanney also recalls the type of welcome Kutner received at Vanderbilt. “Even though he was a little older, Vanderbilt was willing to take a risk on him because of his engineering background and his interest in a new field of bioengineering. They saw something special in him. He had an engineer’s approach to medicine.

“Once he arrived on campus, some very special people at Vanderbilt also took Stephen under their wing — Frank Boehm, Lee Silver and Louis Rosenfeld treated him like one of their family. They knew that he was alone and far from home.”

Kutner’s legacy continues today through the Dr. Stephen S. Kutner Scholarship that he and Jeanney established for deserving medical students. As the son of a police officer in a middle-class Long Island neighborhood, Kutner worked multiple jobs and received an athletic scholarship during his undergraduate years. He also worked during medical school, so the decision to create financial support for future medical students was easy.

Current medical student Daniel Wolfson is grateful for Kutner’s legacy.

“I wanted to go into medicine because it will allow me to give back to the world, while also putting my fascination with the intricacies of the human body to meaningful use. I am so honored that someone who has never met me has supported me along my path,” Wolfson said.