Dad did well in school, and thanks to his tenacity and a decent serve of Boomer fortune, he graduated in medicine, married my mum, bought a house, took a year off to travel the world, and got into a surgical training program in Melbourne – all by the age of 26, and all without any privilege, money or connections to the overwhelmingly Anglo medical establishment.

Goldstein as a medical student in 1970.

Goldstein as a medical student in 1970.

For 50 years he worked a punishing on-call schedule that earned him the moniker “the 7-11 man” from Mum (out before 7am, home after 11pm) – but the reality is that his hours were often more extreme than that, such was his dedication to his work and patients.

When he was home, though, he was home: tucking us into bed, bemoaning the amount of TV we watched, discussing the footy with my brother, helping us with homework. I have a vivid memory of him leaning over my sister’s desk late at night during her VCE years, suit jacket still on and briefcase by his side, expounding on differential equations in a cadence I can only describe as talmudic.

As a surgeon, Dad was known for his compassionate bedside manner in an era when this was not commonplace or even considered important in surgical training. He performed more than 10,000 operations and was well-respected and sought out, especially by patients from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Dad’s empathy was undoubtedly a product of his childhood. From a young age, he and his sister Pearl served as their parents’ interpreters – these days we would describe them as parentified children – and by his own admission, this responsibility cultivated a profound understanding of the experiences of marginalised people.

At Monash Medical Centre, he was also committed to training the next generation of heart surgeons, serving as the supervisor of cardiothoracic training from 1989 to 2017. As the beneficiary of an excellent public education from primary school to university, Dad felt compelled to pass on his knowledge to the benefit of the Australian and international medical communities – though he wouldn’t have phrased it in such idealistic terms; he simply did it.

I am grateful for Dad’s immense, grounding strength, which carried me and countless others through life-altering challenges.

Several of his mentees came from China, Malaysia and India, and went on to establish cardiothoracic units in underserved communities back home. One of his former trainees, recounting his guidance through her first major surgical complication, described him as a mensch, a barely translatable Yiddish term that means a person of integrity and kindness (but also much more).

She described how Dad patiently educated her throughout the repair, called her that night to check in, and insisted that she perform that component of the operation herself the next time so that she would have the confidence to master it.

My father seemed, in so many ways, unshakeable – which is a quality you want in the person who is going to crack your chest open and hold your heart in their hands. When he was 50, he was in a serious car accident and sustained several broken ribs, and was lucky to emerge from our crushed Peugeot station wagon alive. (I have never been able to look at the photos; he appraised them with the matter-of-fact curiosity of a seasoned frontline worker.)

From his hospital bed, he lamented the injury’s impact on his running regimen and wondered if he’d ever crack a PB again. When it was time to leave the hospital, he insisted on driving himself home, torso still black and blue. “You’ve got to get straight behind the wheel,” he explained to 13-year-old me. “You can’t let it get to you.” One year later he ran a marathon, his first of 11.

A person with this level of obstinate drive and apparent invincibility can also be frustrating and uncompromising – I could write a book – but I am grateful for Dad’s immense, grounding strength, which carried me and countless others through life-altering challenges.

In theatre at Cabrini Hospital.

In theatre at Cabrini Hospital.

On Mother’s Day in 2018, my family experienced the greatest challenge of all when my beloved nephew Gideon – Dad’s oldest grandchild – was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of eight. Dad was a rock, attending medical appointments while working full-time and fielding questions from the extended family.

That he couldn’t save his grandson, who died 11 months later, was the most acute kind of grief. At the beginning of that harrowing, sleepless year I feared my internal scaffolding would collapse, but instead I tapped into a reserve of stoicism I didn’t know I had – but which had Dad’s imprint all over it.

He went on to become a star fundraiser for the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation, a wonderful Melbourne-based charity dedicated to paediatric brain cancer research. It wasn’t easy for Dad to ask for donations – he liked to keep things low-key, social media was anathema to him, and he never quite mastered the mass BCC text – but inevitably he wiped the floor with the rest of the family in our annual campaigns, personally raising over $50,000.


When Dad’s health started to deteriorate rapidly last year, we decided to show him the nomination forms, not knowing if he would live to receive the honour. My sister perched on his bed at Cabrini – another hospital he worked at for decades – and read aloud to him. This is Your Life: Palliative Care spin-off, I thought that day, looking out across the rooftops of Malvern and Caulfield towards my childhood home in Elsternwick. The irony of dad receiving palliative care in the Catholic hospital he and so many other Jewish doctors helped shape, so close to the bagel belt of Melbourne, felt like a fitting coda.

He listened with a look of amazement, both at the effort we had gone to and the testimonials from his peers and former trainees, occasionally lifting his eyebrows and shaking his head in his characteristic expression of self-effacement – almost as if he were listening to another person’s biography. He died at home a few months later.

Now, inevitably, I find myself perusing the list of honouree names as Dad once did. He would have been a little embarrassed by all the fuss, but I can kvell. The AM is a fitting tribute from the place that made him – a place that is in turn enriched by the people it opens its doors to, child refugees and skilled immigrants alike. You never know who’s going to walk off a boat or a plane and hold your heart in their hand one day.

I just wish I could pick up the phone and share the news the way he used to: “Guess who got a gong?”

Elissa Goldstein is a producer at The Age.

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