UMD professor finds strength despite family trauma

photo Melanie Goldish, a professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), can still remember the November morning when she got a phone call that no mother would ever want to receive.

“Ironically, I was just telling another professor how lucky I was to know that both of my sons were healthy and problem-free,” Goldish said.

On this morning, Goldish received a call from the University of Michigan with news about her son, Spencer. He was involved in a car accident in Ann Arbor, Mich., and was in the trauma intensive care unit (ICU).

“This was a situation where nothing else mattered in the world," Goldish said. "I had to be with my son."

Spencer and his friend had been on their way to Michigan and hit bumper-to-bumper traffic due to heavy construction. Spencer was asleep in the passenger seat when a vehicle struck them from behind, traveling at 70 mph. The man driving the vehicle was ejected from his car, and Spencer and his friend were sandwiched between two vehicles. First response arrived, and 30 minutes later, the two boys were airlifted to the hospital.

Goldish made it to Michigan 12 hours after the crash, dropping everything to be with Spencer in the ICU. Spencer had broken his back and his neck, fractured three ribs and also had a fractured skull.

“My mom asked me if I knew who she was when she arrived at the hospital. I told her that I did not,” Spencer said, piecing together his memory of the hospital visit.

After a week in the hospital and a craniotomy surgery, which involves surgically removing bone from the skull, Spencer was able to go back home with his mother. He has been recovering for the past three weeks.

However, Spencer’s car accident was not the first time Goldish has had to cope with a near-death experience in her family.

Goldish's world was tipped upside-down in May 1998 when her five-year-old son, Travis, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. This type of leukemia is a serious and life-threatening illness that would change the course of her and her family’s life.

“The only thing I can say was that I felt shattered and numb," Goldish said. "The rest of the world just fell apart, and my only focus was on the health of my son.”

In September 1998, Goldish and her family were forced to move from their home in Chicago to a Ronald McDonald home in Milwaukee, Wis. The Ronald McDonald program provides a “home away from home” for families so that they can stay close to their hospitalized child at all times, with little to no cost for the family.

Miraculously, nine days after the family's move, the one match in the country for Travis’ bone marrow transplant was found. His match was discovered through Be The Match, a national registry marrow donation program.

At that time, Goldish’s youngest son, Spencer, was only four years old.

“It was hard for me to understand what was going on. I was always ignored and being pushed out of the way,” said Spencer, who was still in the constraints of his back and neck brace from the recent accident.

When Travis won his battle against cancer, Goldish sat down with Spencer and asked him what he was feeling.

“Mom, it felt like my body was torn in half,” Spencer said.

With this statement, the door opened to Goldish's next life-changing opportunity.

In March 2002, Goldish left her corporate leadership job and decided to pursue the founding of a non-profit organization called SuperSibs. This would become an organization dedicated to helping siblings of children with cancer cope with the events that are happening around them, all the while, letting them know they are loved.

“What we do is send out care packages with different comfort items," Goldish said. "This includes blankets, pillowcases, a letter from the organization and a personal trophy with their name on it. Having their name on the trophy was important because it reassured them of their importance, and to let them know they have not been forgotten."

The organization originally started in the basement of the family's Milwaukee home, but it continued to thrive and grow to reach out to children around the world.

In October 2010, at the age of 15, Travis was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Through another round of extensive chemotherapy treatments and the support of his loving family and friends, Travis would indeed emerge through his second battle with cancer.

Through Travis’ cancer and the traumatic car accident involving Spencer, Goldish has battled through some of life’s biggest challenges with a belief that she continues to display every day.

“You can sit around and continue to get worse, or you can make the best of your situation," Goldish said. "Whether it is a traumatic accident, a divorce or anything you are struggling with, you ultimately have the power of choice. You have the power to determine how you will face your problem.”

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