When Geraldine (Gerry) and Sam Shachnowich describe each other, even when they’re poking fun, you get a little spellbound by the deep love that binds a couple married for 65 years.
“I was about 24 when we met; she seemed like a nice person to get involved with. And as it turned out, she was,” says Sam from his chair in the couple’s sunny Calgary sitting room. Then his eyes light up and he cracks a grin. “Plus getting married more than once is too much work.”
Gerry gets her own jab in. "I put him on a training program and he still hasn't finished it yet,” she chuckles.
Gerry is 86 and Sam is 91, though they seem decades younger. They are witty and warm and our conversation is filled with belly laughs.
The Shachnowiches have chosen, together, to support the Cumming School of Medicine’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the University of Calgary. First, Gerry’s $2.5 million donation will establish an endowment to support spine research for generations to come. She wants to honour her parents, Joyce and Orville Harper, and their legacy through this fund.
The couple intends to combine this gift with a legacy gift to enable the institute’s first Chair in Spine Research. Once fully funded, the Chair will lead critical work into the future. Says Gerry:
There are great advances being made in medicine and I think it should continue.
Several McCaig Institute members are part of the University of Calgary Spine Program, a multidisciplinary clinical and academic group focused on the care of patients with conditions and diseases of the spine and spinal cord. The program’s spine surgeon-scientists perform more than 1,900 spine operations for Alberta Health Services each year on adult and pediatric patients, and they work together to advance research that improves the lives of patients with spinal disorders.
Fuelling advances in spinal research
The couple learned about the institute’s excellence in bone and joint research from a trusted friend who is one of its members, Dr. Ganesh Swamy, MD, PhD. Dr. Swamy is investigating why some women develop scoliosis (abnormal spine curvature) during perimenopause. In addition, he is working to develop a predictive test for spontaneous resolution of sciatica pain, also known as slipped discs.
“Spinal disorders research is sorely needed, with chronic low-back pain regarded as the condition causing the highest burden of disability in the world, with massive socio-economic impact,” says Swamy. “While progress will require multidisciplinary collaboration of health-care practitioners, more important answers will come from detailed biological understanding of spinal disorders. With this wonderful donation, we can accelerate our research programs and compete at a high level.”
Gerry once benefited from spinal fusion surgery in the McCaig Tower at the Foothills Medical Centre and she wanted to help spark new discoveries in the field.
“They're working on new and improved things for the spine to alleviate pain and suffering for everybody,” she says. "Back pain is so common. I hope it leads to some research that will give people with worse cases than mine a better quality of life.”
McCaig Institute director, Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, says the Shachnowiches’ generosity will create an exciting new foundation for spine research at the institute.
“We have an incredible intradisciplinary team of clinicians and scientists working to improve spine health through better patient outcomes and we’re grateful for the opportunity to build and lead this program,” says Dr. Boyd. “Endowing the gift provides a foundation for this important work to grow and make new discoveries for improving spinal health well into the future.”
A legacy of love and impact
Sam is a 1954 University of Alberta Gold Medal graduate of Dentistry who then practiced in Calgary for 42 years until his retirement; Gerry was his supportive partner through the years. “We worked hard in life but also did well with investments. We feel fortunate to have something we’re able to give and I feel other people who have done well in life should give, too,” she says.
Active living has always been a strong constant in the couple’s six-decade relationship. They met in the 1950s on the hill at Banff’s Mount Norquay, continuing to downhill ski together in the Alberta and B.C. Rockies into their 70s. They were also avid golfers up until recently.
Their life together is moving much more slowly these days. Earlier this year, Gerry was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Still, the laughter and love woven through their days is as bright as ever.
“We’ve been lucky,” Sam says, in a serious tone this time.
“We've really cared for one another. And during this illness of mine, he's just been terrific, like I knew he would be,” Gerry adds.