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No Small Ask

Through the U's Anatomy Bequest Program, Robert and Selma Goldish found a way to keep giving, even after death.

Photo courtesy Melanie Goldish

Robert “Bob” Goldish (M.D. ’46) and Selma Senior Goldish (B.S. ’52) were with other blind dates when they met at a community dance in 1950, each seeing instantly something wonderful in the other. After Bob proposed and Selma lightheartedly replied “Let’s give it a whirl!” they married in 1951 and two years later settled in Bob’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, where he built a successful private practice as a doctor who made house calls right up until he retired in 1989. Together they raised four children and devoted their lives to causes and activities that reflected their shared passions for helping others, learning, and having fun.

Busy and active nearly to the end of their 66-year marriage, Bob and Selma decided together to donate their bodies to the University of Minnesota’s Anatomy Bequest Program. For them, it was a way to continue “giving forward,” says their daughter Melanie Goldish (B.A. ’80, M.A. ’84). “My dad used to always say it was an honor, and an immensely important contribution to his education, that he was able to work on bodies that had been donated to the U when he was in medical school. We had some very frank and pragmatic conversations about how they wanted to live and die, and I can’t tell you what a gift that was because, when they died, we were crystal clear about their wishes.”

That clarity became even more important when Melanie and siblings Bruce, Lisa, and Sue unexpectedly lost both parents within a week. Bob and Selma had been receiving home hospice care for many months, their hospital beds close together in their bedroom so they could reach out for each other. Bob, who was 93 and had discontinued kidney dialysis, died last year on October 15. Expecting their father’s death, the siblings had been making plans to continue caring for their mother who, at 87, was dealing with cancer. Instead, Selma’s health deteriorated rapidly, and with family gathered around her bedside, she died four days after her husband. “Mom always said she wanted them to die together, but we expected her to outlive him so we were just reeling at the loss of both of them,” Melanie says.

Still, it was comforting to know that their parents had left a lasting legacy. Each year an average of 600 people donate their bodies to science through the Anatomy Bequest Program. In 2017, 635 people made that gift, 184 of them having served in the U.S. military. Started in 1901, the U’s whole body donation program plays a key role in supporting medical education and research. Currently, the U’s Academic Health Center trains about 70 percent of the state’s health care workforce, and donors can have a meaningful impact on helping find ways to better treat and cure illness.

Yet body donation is not for everybody, says program director Angela McArthur. “This is no small ask,” she explains. “Depending on the requests we have, donors can be with us for two to 18 months, and that can be hard on families because they have to wait for the kind of reconciliation you get with a traditional funeral. What’s most important is that donors and their loved ones feel strongly about what they are doing and understand what happens.”

Each year, the program receives about 100 requests for access to human tissue for training, education, and research. It is not uncommon for as many as 300 requests to be open, meaning the educator, researcher, or physician is still waiting. Surgeons also frequently request access to donors’ bodies so they can practice techniques and train students and residents. Rumi Faizer, M.D., head of the U’s vascular surgery division, uses the program’s labs weekly. “Dr. Faizer is so grateful to be able to bring fellows, residents, and attending physicians here so they can encounter the kinds of things they see in clinical practice because it can make such a difference in patient outcomes,” McArthur says.

To express his gratitude personally, Faizer met with many donors’ family members at the program’s Service of Gratitude last November at Northrop. Held annually to recognize and honor the people who gifted their bodies that year, the service is the largest of its kind in the world and includes music, poetry, and dance performances, as well as a presentation featuring a photo of each donor along with their names.

With emotions still raw, Melanie was one of 1,720 people who attended the service in person, while her siblings, who live out of town, joined nearly 600 others watching live online. As she saw her parents’ smiling faces on the screen onstage, Melanie wished they could see how their gift was honored. Especially moving were the words of medical school student Hayley Sharma, who spoke of her feelings upon meeting her first donor: “As soon as I saw my first teacher’s hand, the wrinkles, the sun spots, the calluses that told a story, I had to step back and breathe,” she told the audience.

Hearing the respect and honor the young woman felt was deeply comforting to Melanie and her siblings. “Knowing that our mom and dad would be someone’s first teacher, metaphorically, was so incredibly moving for our family. All of those people there, honoring our parents, felt like a really loving hug. This was not a frivolous gift, and we’re so grateful they chose this meaningful way to complete their lives on earth.”

Meleah Maynard (B.A. '91) is the former senior editor of Minnesota Alumni and a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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