Cherry Hill native, product of township public schools, Rutgers graduate and future family physician Eric Yesner passed away suddenly on Aug. 14. He was only 30 years old, and had just begun a residency in family medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
Based in New York, but also a Cherry Hill native, Ben Birnbaum has been one of Yesner’s close friends since childhood. Through his involvement with the creation of a scholarship in Yesner’s name, he’s wants to find purpose in his anguish and provide a future for those interested in the profession.
“We’re still grappling with these big questions of pain and healing, despite having the scholarship as a physical thing. (Eric’s death) still feels wrong and it still all feels so untrue,” Birnbaum said during a conversation on Jan. 6.
The Eric Yesner Pre-Medical Endowed Memorial Scholarship was created in partnership with the Rutgers Foundation. Most of Yesner’s immediate family — his parents as well as two siblings — are proud graduates of the Rutgers educational system.
Every year, two recipients in pursuit of a pre-medicine track at Rutgers receive scholarships for tuition from the fund. Awardees will be selected by the Rutgers Foundation based on need and merits.
Already having passed its stated goal of $50,000 in gifts and pledges that will allow the scholarship to exist in perpetuity, Birnbaum noted the next goal is to reach $100,000. While he said there’s no specific date to reach the total, a big fundraising push at the end of March is expected to help reach it.
As of the new year, the scholarship boasts $72,000 in contributions, with more than 100 people donating to the cause.
“I do sense a shift in the confusion and the hurt now that we have a shared place to channel that energy,” Birnbaum admitted with regard to how he and others have processed their pain in doing what’s necessary to launch the scholarship.
Birnbaum met Yesner in childhood and the pair remained close friends well into adulthood. They clicked when the Yesner family moved back to Cherry Hill — when both men were in fifth grade at Stockton Elementary School — and linked with each other through mutual interests and attendance at Temple Beth Sholom.
Both graduated from Cherry Hill High School East in 2007, but their paths diverged: Birnbaum at Penn State and Eric at Rutgers. Yet they visited each other multiple times as undergraduates and Birnbaum even melded seamlessly with Eric’s college mates.
Meetings became less frequent when Ben arrived in New York and Eric started medical school at Rowan University, but they still talked almost every day in spite of the distance and demands of careers.
Eric passed away in the period between Ben’s bachelor party and wedding, only two months after beginning the next chapter in his career. According to his mother Joan, he was discovered through the intervention of a police acquaintance, who did a wellness check on a day Eric was conspicuously absent from work.
“Well, it was always my dream that he become a doctor,” Joan admitted during a separate Jan. 6 conversation.
Eric showed promise and interest but most of all excellent grades throughout high school in his science classes, including those in Advanced Placement. She related how he first became interested in medicine as a profession his senior year at East, when his father suffered a broken arm that required surgery.
Being in the hospital under the circumstances, Joan said, her son “felt comfortable in that environment.”
Originally planning on a career in emergency medicine, Eric was encouraged by his mother to become an Emergency Medical Technician — just to see how he would stand up to situations that would test ordinary people’s resolve.
Yet a mentor of Eric’s saw how his demeanor and personality were suited to the more benign and low-stress aspects of treating patients, and suggested family medicine was a better path than emergency medicine.
“At first I couldn’t handle things, but to see Ben do this in Eric’s name, I’m beyond touched by it,” Joan related. “I wasn’t ready before, but I am now.”
Though his friend may be physically departed, Birnbaum said he’s still reminded of Yesner through dozens of pictures on Facebook, the close relationship with his family and all the memories they shared.
For a more detailed description of the scholarship and Yesner’s life and impact, visit: https://one.rutgers.edu/project/18741