Margie Goldsmith
Margie Goldsmith

I Traveled the World to Escape Death

A longtime BJT contributor describes the medical crises she has faced and explains why she’s always eager to hit the road.

There were at least 24 beds with mounds covered by thick green plastic covers. I was in an anatomy lab at a teaching hospital in New York City, having been granted permission to see a cadaver because I was thinking about donating my body after I died. An assistant donned gloves and carefully rolled back a plastic sheet, revealing a whiskered man who looked to be around 80, maybe a decade older than me.

“This is Joe,” said the chief of anatomy, who was accompanying me.

“Who was Joe?” I asked.

“We only know his first name,” the chief replied.

Joe had not been sliced open down the belly-button line as I’d expected. The chief opened a U-shaped flap of skin, exposing Joe’s organs. I noticed a spiral metal object buried in his chest. “What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s his pacemaker,” the chief said. “Would you like to hold his heart?” I nodded. I put on rubber gloves and picked up the organ, which was as big as a cantaloupe and very heavy. I wondered what my heart would feel like when they cut me open. Certainly not this big. Would they immediately notice I had no pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, ovaries, or lower right lung?

I turned to the chief. “Are you sure they’d take my body missing so many organs?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “It would be a great learning experience for the students.”

When I died, he explained, my nearest and dearest would call a number, the hospital would fetch my cadaver, send it to the Bronx to be drained, then ship it to the anatomy lab to be dissected by medical students. Much later, they’d cremate my body and hold a service for my family, friends, and the students who’d dissected me.

That sounded perfect: no expensive coffins or burial plot, no funeral home. My sister would simply make a phone call, and all would be taken care of free of charge. Understand, I am not planning for my death anytime soon, but considering what I’ve been through, I want to be prepared.

A Small Cancer

Seven years ago, while packing to go trekking in Tibet, I was told there was a small cancer cell in my pancreas, and I’d need a Whipple procedure. I thought that was something nuns wore on their heads. Wrong. That’s a wimple. In a Whipple procedure, they cut off the head of the pancreas and part of the small intestine, take out the gallbladder and bile duct, then sew everything back together. The five-year survival rate is about 20 to 25 percent.

The operation took six hours, and the recovery was slow and painful. It was weeks before I could walk more than a block. My scar ran from my breastbone to below my navel; it looked as though I’d been in a knife fight. I knew about the low survival rate, but I was determined to live even though my life was reduced to lying in bed and watching bad movies.

After weeks of recovery and chemo, I felt almost like my old self. My surgeon gave me permission to travel, so I rebooked my trip to Tibet, a place I had wanted to visit since seeing the movie Seven Years in Tibet, in which a Western man played by Brad Pitt is transformed by Tibetan Buddhism.

There, I trekked with a guide on Himalayan mountain trails—not as fast as I would have before but the hike was manageable. I told the guide about my operation and how I’d started to think about death. He said that people in Western cultures chase transitory pleasures, believing that power and wealth will bring them lasting happiness. “Those people never talk about death,” he said, “but we Buddhists understand its inevitability, so we make the most of every moment.” That was exactly what I needed to hear.

As we ventured down the mountain trail, we passed a house where two Tibetan women with turquoise and red yarn woven into their braids burned incense in an outdoor oven. Was it a death ritual? “No,” my guide said. “Juniper has a calming effect, and Tibetans burn it to stimulate the nerves and purify the atmosphere.” The women waved me over. “Tashi delek,” I said. The greeting was the only Tibetan I knew. They smiled and handed me incense, motioning me to throw it into the fire. As I did, they looked at me, and we all burst out laughing. There was an instant, joyful connection. I can still see their red, beaming faces and hear their laughter in my mind.

Two years passed. I continued to travel on a quest to experience foreign cultures that intrigued me but about which I knew almost nothing. Suddenly, my quarterly CT scan revealed a new cancer cell in my pancreas, requiring a pancreatectomy. This is an operation that not turns people into instant Type 1 diabetics but kills most of them within five to eight months. Fearing the worst, I rewrote my will, said goodbye to my closest friends, and was wheeled into the operating room. But I woke up. This time, there was no chemo, yet recovery took even longer than it did after the Whipple. Plus, now a Type 1 diabetic, I had to constantly monitor my blood sugar and shoot insulin several times a day. And I’d have to do so for the rest of my life.

But I was alive.

Off to India

Again, I healed by walking slowly and staying in bed watching movies. Each time a foreign country appeared on the screen, I ached to travel. After six weeks, I was healed. I could manage my diabetes and had my doctor’s permission to travel. This time, one-third of my suitcase was filled with insulin pens, extra blood-testing kits, emergency candy for low blood sugar, and packs of the 14 pills I now had to take daily. It seemed like a lot to manage, but I had international medical insurance, so I felt safe. I booked a trip to one of the most exotic places in the world: India.

The holy city of Varanasi was a pulsating mass of tourists and pilgrims who had come to pray and bathe in the sacred Ganges River. On the other side, funeral pyres burned 24 hours a day. A boatman asked if I wanted to be rowed across to look at the burning bodies. “It’s good luck,” he said. I declined. I already had all the good luck I needed.

I didn’t like Varanasi, not only because it was the city of death, but because it was hot, dirty, and crowded. The next day, my guide drove me to Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here, the same Ganges emerges from the mountains, but this water is unpolluted. At sunset, I walked along the bank of the Ganges.

Across the river, a sadhu, or holy man, sat cross-legged, a large maroon stripe painted down his forehead. I felt him looking at me but continued to walk, watching the setting sun cast a golden streak on the river. Suddenly, as if pulled by an invisible force, my arms went straight out to my sides. I didn’t know what it meant and still don’t, but even though my arms stayed raised, I kept walking, lulled by the gurgling sound as the water passed over stones. I’d never felt more peaceful in my life.

A year later, they found a cancer cell in my lung, and the doctors had to remove the entire lobe. Lung cancer causes around 132,000 deaths a year in the U.S., but even though it was my longest, most difficult recovery, I survived. Months later, I finally felt well enough to travel again. This time, I wanted to visit a beautiful locale but one that didn’t require trekking on mountains to high altitudes.

I chose Sumba, an Indonesian island just a short hop from Bali, a place where water buffalo plow the rice paddies and goats and horses are tethered on every hillside. My accommodation was in a magnificent beachfront resort where I walked the beach each morning, swam in the sea, and lazed in the sun. One morning, the guide took me to Weihola, a traditional Sumbanese village where families live in the same three-story timber houses their ancestors occupied a hundred years ago.

As we got out of a shiny SUV, about a dozen children raced up to the vehicle, stared at their reflections in the shiny exterior, and screamed with laughter. None of them had ever seen themselves in a mirror. The children were clean but ragged and barefoot, and it made me appreciate how easy I had it in spite of my three operations.

Giving Something Back

Then, two years ago, I woke up to a bed full of blood. An ulcer bleed. I barely had enough energy to call 911. Luckily, the ambulance arrived just as my blood pressure was spiraling down to 60 over 40. At the hospital, they clamped the bleed, and I healed. I could travel again. This time, I chose Israel. I wanted to see the Old City of Jerusalem, long considered one of the world’s holiest locations and home to three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I walked the Via Dolorosa, visited the Western Wall, and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I learned about tzedakah, a practice that goes back to Holy Temple times and means charity and redemption. I wondered: Have I given back anything in my lifetime?

Each of my complicated operations could have killed me, but I was saved by brilliant, experienced surgeons who surely learned about the human body by working on cadavers. Suddenly, I realized what I could give back: my surgically repaired corpse. When I arrived home, I visited the hospital’s anatomy lab and signed the papers of consent.

Now, I can stop thinking about death and get back to traveling. I recently returned from Sicily, where my adventure vacation included hiking and cycling up Mount Etna, eating eight kinds of pizza, and visiting a centuries-old Roman amphitheater where gladiators once fought.

Now I’m planning my next trip to a little-known island in the Caribbean called St. Eustatius. I will climb the volcano called the Quill down into the crater. Inside the crater is a dark forest filled with orchids and other tropical vegetation. I will also snorkel and ponder the history of St. Eustatius, which, from the first European settlement in the 17th century until the early 19th century, changed hands 21 times between the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

There is nothing that enriches a life like travel, and I plan to continue to explore new places until I die. I think about Joe, the cadaver with the unknown last name. I don’t want to be just a first name, so I have written a note to be attached to my body. It says:

“My name was Margie Goldsmith. I lived my life as freely as I could, even though I was hindered by recurring cancer, an ulcer bleed, four ambulance rides, and 14 hospital visits in seven years. I traveled to 144 countries and loved every place I visited and every person I met. If you’re scared to travel, as I was at first, just take a deep breath and go anyway. Go everywhere. Go where you don’t speak the language, where you’re out of your comfort zone. Traveling made me a more compassionate, happier person. May it do the same for you.”