Elaine and John Freeman, MD

When Elaine and John Freeman, MD, began to contemplate retirement, they took stock of a lifetime of professional accomplishments his illustrious and influential career in pediatric neurology and epilepsy, and her three decades as the grande dame of communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

When they also took stock of their assets, they were more than pleasantly surprised to learn that, during their 70 combined years of employment at Johns Hopkins, a sizeable sum had accrued in their 403(b) retirement plan accounts.

"We were dumbfounded," says John, Lederer Professor Emeritus of Pediatric Epilepsy, professor of neurology and pediatrics and founder of the pediatric epilepsy center now named in his honor. "With our modest lifestyle, we had more than sufficient funds for our retirement."

Moreover, the Freemans learned from their financial advisor, because their contributions had been made with pre-tax dollars, their retirement plan assets would be heavily taxed if they designated their three children as beneficiaries.

They were faced with a happy conundrum. John, who graduated from the School of Medicine in 1958, returned to Johns Hopkins in 1969 to create a pediatric neurology division. As he became engaged in discussions about the decision-making process for treating infants with spina bifida, he developed an interest in clinical bioethics that subsequently influenced how birth defects were perceived and treated. He later created and served as chair of The Johns Hopkins Hospital Ethics Committee, chaired the search committee for the first director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, co-authored Tough Decisions: A Casebook in Bioethics and solidified a belief that the institution should adopt a more vigorous clinical ethics curriculum.

Elaine, who shared John's belief, knew that more than passion would be needed to realize such a goal: "I said to John, 'This curriculum is never going to happen unless someone gives the money specifically for it.'"

The couple, who have supported many charitable endeavors during their 55 years of marriage, envisioned a faculty position. "We didn't have the money to endow a professorship or even an associate professorship," John recalls. "But we could help pay the salary for a faculty member who would teach clinical ethics to young physicians."

In 2005, the Freemans pledged the first of several outright gifts to fund a faculty position for four years, hoping they might find a way to maintain it in perpetuity. The boon of their retirement accounts provided that opportunity.

They worked with their financial planner, Johns Hopkins leadership and a representative from the Office of Gift Planning to design a bequest that will divide their 403(b) retirement accounts among several institutions, including the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics to permanently endow the Freeman Family Scholars in Clinical Bioethics, which allows junior faculty members to teach clinical ethics in the hospital and medical school.

"Doctors have to have some role in guiding decisions," says John. "We ask parents and patients to make ethical decisions about which they have no experience whatsoever. If you ask them in the wrong way, they will say, 'Of course, we want to have everything possible done,' which might lead to the patient's being in a comatose state forever.

"My hope is that students and residents will be far more sensitive, more humanistic and in touch with different responses from patients and tolerant of different decisions."

Pediatrician and assistant professor Margaret R. Moon, MD, who was named the first Freeman Family Scholar, works with students and residents in a special voluntary program that provides the opportunity for these physicians-in-training to reflect on their practice and clinical ethics.

"The Freemans' gift allowed me to start with a very open mind and take an expansive look at ethics education to develop innovative and responsive teaching," says Moon. "Clinical ethics is a regular topic of conversation among our residents and in our hospital because of the Freemans' generosity and leadership."

"Working at Johns Hopkins for a long period of time allowed us, among other things, to know areas where a difference can be made," John says. "We know there is a future in what we are funding, and it is wonderful to see some of that future realized while we are alive."

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