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A healing legacy: Estate gift honors brother’s legacy as physician, teacher, and friend

Nancy Shelby
Nancy Shelby's estate commitment will further her brother's legacy by helping train medical students in physical diagnosis.
Photograph of Nancy's brother
When Nancy thinks of her brother Mike, she remembers a gifted physician with a passion for teaching the next generation.

Nancy Shelby remembers the day her brother Mike—a cooking enthusiast and wine connoisseur—endured a life-altering loss, taken by the radiation therapy that saved him from throat cancer.

“He was actually over-irradiated, and although it sent his cancer into remission, it also fused his esophagus shut,” she says. “He couldn’t swallow anything.”

Nancy speaks glowingly of her brother, who grew up a sickly child but rose to excel in multiple sports, graduate from medical school at Columbia University, and build a reputation as an expert in physical diagnosis.

“Doctors would send patients to him when they couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” says Nancy, a member of the UTHealth Houston Development Board.

In 2014, she made an estate commitment to McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, creating an endowment to enhance the teaching of physical diagnosis in memory of her brother—a devoted teacher who left his private practice to educate medical students.

He loved to cook meals for his students and held wine tastings for them at his 2,000-bottle wine cellar, even when he could no longer swallow. Such was his commitment that during a physical diagnosis class when the volunteer patient failed to arrive, Mike had his students evaluate his own heart murmur.

“He knew how to get things across to people,” Nancy says. “He actually inspired a number of people to become doctors.”

After his esophagus fused in 2003, Mike found a surgeon at a major New York hospital who had successfully created a new esophagus for several patients. Mike decided to undergo the procedure despite its risks.  

“I knew my brother was special when the head of the hospital walked up to him and said, ‘We are honored to have you in our hospital,’” Nancy recalls.

The surgery failed, however, and Mike would spend the remaining seven years of his life bereft of taste—but spurred on by his love of teaching.

“He had such grace under pressure,” Nancy says. “One of his former students said, ‘There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t ask myself what your brother would do in my practice.’”

When Mike’s throat cancer returned in 2009, he declined further treatment, saying that the day he could no longer teach, he would be happy to pass.

A few days before he died in early 2010, Nancy remembers the chief resident of a local hospital asking to see him. Twenty minutes later, Nancy went upstairs to Mike’s room to find him annotating a pile of electrocardiograms for the resident.

“He got his wish,” she says. “He taught to the absolute end.”

Nancy strongly believes in the power of giving to accomplish good and that generous people of even modest means can make a great difference. She hopes her gift will help medical students become the kind of physicians who would make her brother proud.

“He didn’t just teach his students about being great doctors,” she says. “He showed them how to be great human beings.”

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