Ideas and Strategies from the Office of Gift Planning at Princeton University
In a make-shift operating room in Pakistan, orthopedist Myles Cohen ’63 concentrated on teaching Afghani medics how to repair a wounded hand — unaware of the disguised and armed bodyguard in the corner who stood ready to protect him.
Cohen volunteered near Afghanistan’s border on an International Medical Corps mission more than 35 years ago, when the Afghani mujahideen were battling the Soviet Union. But he and his wife, Eleanor “Cita” Cohen, were shocked to learn the now retired doctor had been personally guarded even in the make-shift operating room as he taught how to treat fractures, burns and wounds.
While Cohen demonstrated basic surgical techniques, at times on a goat, U.S. covert forces were helping the mujahideen — and keeping an eye on others aiding them. On meeting one of his protectors three years ago, Cohen was told, “We had your back.”
The words “We had your back” echo Cohen’s own Princeton experience. After the death of his father, who also was a doctor, members of the University community helped pave the way for Cohen to become a doctor, too:
· The administrator who arranged for him to take his freshman-year finals at Texas Western College in the aftermath of his father’s death.
· The admission officer who secured tuition, room and board funds for him to return to Princeton a year later.
· The wake-up call from pre-med adviser Allen Whipple ’39 as to his prospects for becoming a doctor.
· The encouragement of his organic chemistry professor, Everett Wallis *25, who suggested further studies at Baylor University and, Cohen suspects, stewarded his eventual acceptance at Columbia’s medical school.
Now the Cohens, members of the 1746 Society, are expressing their gratitude to the University by establishing a scholarship to back up the aspirations of future students.
“Originally, we were not going to do this until we passed away, and then we decided: Let’s just do it,” Cohen said. “It makes us feel really good.”
The path to medical school
Cohen admits he didn’t take his academics seriously freshman year; he ranked in the bottom five percent of his class after finals.
That all changed with the return home to El Paso, Texas, for his father’s funeral. Without funds to return to Princeton for his sophomore year, Cohen worked three x-ray technician jobs and enrolled at Texas Western College. But he missed Princeton.
Cohen called Princeton admission in November and was told he would have to wait until school started the following fall to return. Then I said, ‘I have one problem: I have no money.’ And knowing full well that I was in the bottom five percent of the class, the admission officer said, ‘You make as much money as you can [from that November to the following academic year], and we’ll take care of the rest.’”
“I will never forget that conversation. It’s kept Princeton in my brain all these years.”
Cohen signed up for pre-med courses on his return to campus. Pre-med adviser Whipple’s stark assessment of his medical school prospects after seeing his academic record — suggesting Cohen find a different career — sharpened his focus. “I will not tell you the particular words that went through my mind and I did not let them out,” Cohen said. “But it made a major impression on me. And I realized that I had to approach Princeton very differently in the coming years than I did the first year.”
He brought up his grades. For pocket money, he sold hot dogs at football games, washed dishes in the biology lab, filled in as an x-ray technician at the infirmary and served lunch meals to faculty.
By his junior year, Cohen’s hard work, in and out of the classroom, caught the attention of Wallis, Cohen’s organic chemistry professor. “Dr. Wallis had seen me in the faculty cafeteria serving lunch and he said, ‘How would you like to go to Baylor?’ I said, ‘That would be terrific, but I don’t have any money.’” Two weeks later, Wallis, who also held a professorship at Baylor College of Medicine, had arranged a scholarship for Cohen.
Soon after, Cohen met the head of Columbia’s anesthesiology department — who also served on the school’s admission committee — at a cocktail party. He decided to apply just to see, and was accepted. “I am convinced Dr. Wallis went to the people at Columbia and said to them, ‘This is the story on that young man who’s applying,’” Cohen said.
Cohen went on to serve on the staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for over 40 years and was a member of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Group for more than 20. He served in many roles including director of hand and upper extremity reconstructive surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Orthopaedic Center and chief of surgery at Cedars-Sinai, and held clinical professorships in surgery at both the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In 2017, an endowed chair at Cedars-Sinai was established in his honor.
Myles and Cita met in high school, and he proposed marriage before he left for Princeton. She came to campus for the freshman prom. But before embarking on her own studies at Syracuse University, Cita decided the twosome needed a break. In retrospect, Cohen said, that break allowed him to knuckle down for his remaining three years at Princeton. The couple married a year after Cohen’s graduation.
During the Vietnam war, Cohen volunteered for the Air Force; he made the choice in part because he couldn’t decide whether he should concentrate on orthopedic or general surgery. While serving his country, he felt the military would give him valuable experience and clarify his choice of a surgical specialty. It did.
But Cohen also had an experience then that eventually brought him to Pakistan. One day in 1969, while Capt. Cohen was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, an airman came to him complaining about his feet. While the war was beginning to wind down, replacement troops were still being sent to Vietnam.
“I examined his foot, and I talked to him, examined an x-ray, and nothing was wrong. I told him that,” Cohen said. “He said, ‘You have to say I’m an F. I can’t go to ’Nam. Because if I go to ’Nam, I’m gonna die.’”
Cohen told the airman he couldn’t falsify his report. “I will tell you that to this day, I think about that young man,” he said. “And I wonder if he died, or if he made it through.”
Haunted by this exchange, he considered going to Vietnam himself. With two young children at home, Cita discouraged her husband. But nearly 20 years later, “when this opportunity to go to Pakistan and help in that arena came,” she said, “I thought this is his opportunity to make up for some of that guilt.”
Princeton ties today
Most of Cohen’s career was spent on the West Coast. The couple came back to Old Nassau for Myles’s 50th reunion, and, after moving to Denver, renewed ties with Myles’s Princeton roommate, Don Burnes ’63.
Their membership in the 1746 Society is another Princeton tie. The scholarship they established is a thank you to Princeton, they said, and a way of giving back and giving forward.
“He was able to get the finest education because Princeton was so generous,” Cita said. “We’re trying to repay in some way what he received.”