Wisdom, Passion... and the Right Thing to Do
It takes fewer than five minutes with Melissa Gilhart to feel as if you're with a friend. Maybe it's the twinkle in her eyes that complements her contagious smile when she speaks passionately about the things that are important to her. Or perhaps it's the impression you get that she is wise beyond her years wisdom gleaned in part through her world travels.
Melissa has been to all seven continents since 1995, but "not all the countries," she says, perhaps hinting that this is her goal. She likes to immerse herself in the communities she visitsbiking to rural areas and small towns, spending time with the villagers, and absorbing the language bit by bit. Whether hanging out on a beach in Croatia or spending time with schoolchildren in Vietnam, she travels because she wants to learn more about people and their cultures.
Melissa came to work as a clinical nurse in MD Anderson's Nursing Resource Pool for a similar reason.
"The people who come here from all over the world for cancer care are inspirational," she says. "Many travel thousands of miles from home, they self-pay and they say that they are lucky they have such a great place to come for treatment."
She works with some of the youngest of these "inspirations," spending most of her nursing time in MD Anderson's Children's Cancer Hospital.
It was here that it became clear to Melissa that she wanted to give more than just her time. She has taken her commitment to cancer patient care a major step further by including MD Anderson in her estate plan. Through her will, she has created a fund to help cancer patients who travel from other countries to MD Andersontailoring her gift to an area of focus that is important to her.
"MD Anderson's values match my values," she says. "I am a 'third-world country' traveler. The people in those countries are survivors. Our patients are survivors too."
Cancer has had a significant impact on Melissa's life, extending beyond her occupation. She lost her mother to brain cancer in 1981, and Melissa herself was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
"My own cancer experience has made me personally realize what people go through," she says. "So many other cultures have rituals to pay homage to the people or things important in life. In this country we really don't. But we do have mechanisms like wills in place to help others. That's what I want to do."
Melissa is determined to educate others on the importance of estate planning.
"It is a way to make sure that the things that are important to you now remain significant after you are gone," she says, adding that "too few people have wills. People need to sit down and talk with their loved ones and think about the things that might still be important to them 30 years or so from now," Melissa says. "And then they need to act on it."
She stresses the value of thinking about planned giving while young. "My aunt has been gone for four years, and we're still in probate because she didn't have a will," she says. "The most important message I can share is 'You're never too young or too busy to have a will.'"
Melissa knows a thing or two about being busy. The day after she finished radiation therapy, she boarded a plane for Spain. Today, she is cancer-free and has already planned her next tripsa return visit to Italy, followed a few months later by a journey to Thailand.
While Melissa's excursions have her flying around the world, her resolve to ensure her legacy remains grounded. "Having a will is so easy," she says. "It's just the right thing to do."
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