Stepping Up

Donna Bernstein
Photo: Christopher Appoldt

Donna Bernstein’s generosity touches lives across continents

As far back as Donna Bernstein can remember, the ethos of giving back has been as much a part of her as her name or the color of her eyes. She comes from strong Jewish roots, and her parents instilled in her and her sister and three brothers the Jewish principle that everyone has a responsibility to help others through charity and service.

“We were raised that if you have a dollar, 33 cents goes to charity, 33 cents goes in the bank, and 34 cents can go in your pocket,” says Bernstein, who grew up and still lives part of the year on Long Island. “That has stayed with me and my siblings ever since. My parents were very involved in Jewish causes and were always giving back, so that was a big part of growing up. That’s just always been who we are.”

Bernstein’s dedication to giving has lifted Duke and the people Duke serves, in areas ranging from global health to cancer research to integrative medicine. The reach of her generosity is vast, stretching from Durham, where she has, among other things, given cancer patients and their families a unique and tranquil sanctuary for peace and healing, to sub-Saharan Africa. There, her partnership with Duke Global Neurosurgery and Neurology is giving new life and new hope to people suffering from traumatic brain injury in one of the most under-served places on earth.

“I believe in Duke. I always tell people to go to Duke, because everyone there is so caring. The doctors and scientists are incredible. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help in whatever way I can.”

– Donna Bernstein

Bernstein became involved with Duke originally through her father, Harold Bernstein, who began coming to Durham in the 1980s for treatment for hypertension, as did his brother and uncle. When Harold was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the early 2000s, he came under the care of Duke oncologist Jon P. Gockerman.

Sadly, Harold Bernstein died of complications from his cancer in 2004. Later that year, grateful for the compassionate care he received at Duke, Donna and her family established the Harold Bernstein Family Fund to support Gockerman’s research into the genetic underpinnings of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Bernstein expanded her impact dramatically starting in 2010, when she made a leadership gift to create a rooftop garden atop the then-new clinical cancer building. The Bernstein Family Garden at the Duke Cancer Center is an exquisite   outdoor space that has given untold numbers of patients, survivors, and their families a serene and beautiful environment that nurtures hope, healing, reflection, and renewal.

At a 2019 reception at the garden, Bernstein recited a traditional Jewish prayer for healing and quoted the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who wrote powerfully of the restorative recuperative powers of gardens and nature.

“Of all things, the garden in particular is an especially sacred space,” she says. “It is so lovely and successfully utilized now. That thrills me, because I have been told Duke is the only hospital in the country with that kind of space. In the Jewish religion, so much is about one’s intention. My intention was to help people heal, and I believe that beautiful environment does that.”

Bernstein, a former professional tennis player and coach who now coaches and promotes wheelchair tennis, experienced the rejuvenating effects of the garden first-hand when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and came to Duke in 2016 for consultation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

At the same time, she was suffering from the lingering effects of automobile accident-related injuries she had received years earlier. Three surgeries in New York had failed to resolve severe pain and restricted mobility in her neck and arms, and her surgical oncologist at Duke, Shelley Hwang, MD, MPH, referred her to neurosurgeon Michael Haglund, MD, PhD. Haglund performed a difficult and delicate operation to ease the pressure on her spinal cord.

“The doctors in New York said they’d done all they could,” she says. “I went to Dr. Haglund, and he said, ‘I think we can help you.’ He performed surgery, and now I’m pain-free and can do everything. It was unbelievable.”

In gratitude, she established the Donna A. Bernstein Global Research Fund with a $100,000 donation to support to a Duke Global Neurosurgery and Neurology program led by Haglund in Uganda, which previously had virtually no neurosurgery resources for a population of 45 million people. The Duke team has launched Uganda’s first neurosurgery training program, provided over 100 tons of technology, and performed 562 brain and spine surgeries.

Bernstein’s gift to the program became an object lesson in the ripple effect of philanthropy. Her gift qualified for a matching donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and enabled Haglund to hire Timothy Dunn, PhD, who in turn received a Duke Global Health Institute pilot grant and collaborated on a Duke Institute for Health Innovations grant. Haglund and his wife, Christine, made their own generous donation, which triggered yet another Gates Foundation match.

Bernstein’s sister, Linda Bernstein Rubin, made a donation as well. And just like that, within a year—and amid a global pandemic, no less—the original $100,000 gift has ballooned to $617,000 for the program.

“Mother Teresa said, ‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples,’” says Haglund. “That’s exactly what Donna Bernstein has accomplished through her generosity. She has an incredibly generous heart, and it has made a huge difference in what we can do.”

Bernstein also started and supports the Prostate Cancer Fund Honoring Coach Clifford Ray, named for her lifelong friend Clifford Ray, a former NBA player and coach and two-time prostate cancer survivor. The fund helps Duke’s Center for Prostate and Urologic Cancers provide resources that will improve outreach to Black men with high risk of prostate cancer. In addition, she established yet another fund to support the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, which provides patients and families a range of activities such as yoga classes and a special program for children who have a parent or caregiver with cancer.

In all of this, Bernstein continues to embrace the practice of charitable giving that her parents taught her as a child. She urges others to do the same.

“It doesn’t have to be a grand number,” she says. “It’s not about the dollar amount. It’s about doing whatever you can do to help. If what you can do is make cookies, then make cookies. In whatever way you can step up, step up.”

By Dave Hart