All in the family
UND alum Dr. Robert Grossman and his daughters on how North Dakota made them the physicians they are today
The irony is not lost on Dr. Jodi Brehm.
“We got to watch our first surgery in high school,” quipped Brehm, a 2001 graduate of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, of her and her sister, Dr. Jennifer Reid. The sisters’ father, Dr. Robert Grossman (B.S. Med ’71), had brought the pair to watch a laparoscopic surgery at the hospital in Hettinger, N.D., in the 1990s. “Oddly enough, I passed out, and she didn’t. And now I’m the surgeon and she’s the psychiatrist, so there you go.”
From her home in Moorestown, N.J., Reid shrugged, pleading the fifth.
“I watched my sister go through surgical training and learned it was not my interest,” Reid hedged with a smile.
The family physician
Such is the tone – knowing smiles, mutual support, and many laughs – when the physician-sister pair reflect on their childhood in Hettinger, their joint interest in medicine, and the differences between their practices today.
As one might imagine, a family that produced two physicians must have had good medical role models growing up, and Brehm and Reid had such models in spades.
The two trace their interest in medicine not only to their father, Robert Grossman, but their maternal grandfather, Dr. Melvin Jacobson, for whom the Jacobson Memorial Hospital Care Center in Elgin, N.D., is named.
The son of two teachers whose own parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Europe, Grossman says that whatever his interests as a child may have been, his future was essentially mapped out for him by his own grandfather.
“My grandpa put me on his knee when I was about six years old and said, ‘Robert, you’re going to be a doctor,’” laughed Grossman from his home in Bismarck, N.D. “So, that took care of it because he was bigger, stronger, and faster than I was.”
His grandfather’s directive aside, Grossman acknowledged that it was his parents who “taught me the value of education and hard work,” and encouraged him to pursue medicine at UND. Matriculating at UND in the late-60s, Grossman earned his B.S. Med degree in 1971. After finishing his M.D. degree in Colorado (UND didn’t offer a four-year medical program at the time) and starting a residency in family medicine in Minneapolis, Grossman began “moonlighting” in Hettinger.
“When I went to Colorado, I thought I was going to be a vascular surgeon,” he recalled, adding that a phone call from Hettinger-based SMHS alum Dr. Jerome Sailer (B.S. Med, ’48) got him thinking otherwise. “After spending a month [at the Hettinger clinic] at the end of my senior year of Colorado, I realized that I was going into family medicine.”
The change of focus, said Grossman, had a lot to do with the jack-of-all-trades approach to medicine he saw — and quickly fell in love with — in rural family practice. So he stuck around over 30 years.
“There are days where I was 100 miles away from Hettinger and I was the only act around,” he said, referencing D.A. Benton’s classic leadership book Lion’s Don’t Need to Roar. “I’d drive over to Macintosh and work until noon, and then I’d get in the car and drive 60 miles to Eagle Butte and work there, and then I drive back home after five o’clock. If a woman’s coming in and wants to deliver a baby or a baby’s not breathing, or if somebody’s having a heart attack, or somebody loses a hand in an auger — you have to deal with that, and stabilize the situation in order to get patients to somebody specialized in that care.”
Such a schedule didn’t stop Grossman from falling in love with another of his affections, though, and he soon found himself married to Elgin, N.D., physician Melvin Jacobsen’s daughter Patricia. The two have been together ever since and raised three children over the years, two of whom opted for a career in medicine.
“I’m not sure exactly how he did it, but I think in all of that time he missed only one basketball game of mine,” smiled eldest daughter Brehm from her home near Racine, Wis. “He and my mom never slept and probably lived on concession stand popcorn for an extended period of time – he always made time for our activities. Both he and my mom held us all together. That helped me realize that you could work hard in medicine and could still have a very rich family life.”
Much of that time “together,” both sisters admit, involved hanging out at what is today known as the West River Health Services hospital and clinic in Hettinger.
“Part of the reason I was so interested in medicine is that I could go in and watch those [providers] work and get to know them,” Brehm explained. “If I had an allergy shot, I’d walk up to the clinic after school, get my own shot, and then hang out in the doctors’ lounge. That was just a great place to grow up, and the older I got the more I thought I wanted to do this work.”
So Brehm enrolled at UND as an undergraduate, stayed for medical school, graduated in 2001, and took on breast surgery as a specialty at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Ill.
“I think it’s funny that my dad was going to be a vascular surgeon originally, because when I started medical school, he said, ‘Don’t be a surgeon,’” she laughed. “But my first rotation was with Dr. Steven Hamar (M.D. ’72) in Bismarck, and at that point I decided it had to be surgery. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Reid agreed, although she ultimately did take her father’s advice. Earning her M.D. from Columbia University in New York City and completing a psychiatry residency at UCLA, Reid said that her own mental health struggles as a teenager and the desire to get to know her patients in a deeper way – plus the shortage of mental health providers nationally – drove her toward psychiatry.
“Growing up in a small town in rural North Dakota, I had periods of depression in high school and even in college,” she recalled. “When I was in high school, there just were no psychiatric treatment options. We didn’t even have a therapist in town.”
Such an experience initiated in her a desire to “try and reach people who may not have access to mental healthcare,” she said – and to help produce quality mental health information available to everyone. Adding that telehealth is going a long way to help more people access such healthcare, and that changes in state licensure policies might bolster the cause, Reid began thinking in 2020 about building on her regular contributions to online magazine Psychology Today by developing a podcast. She did so — at the height of COVID — in the hope that she might better stay in touch not only with her own patients increasingly affected by a global pandemic but those countless non-patients across the nation who were stuck at home and whose mental health was deteriorating.
“I was thinking about the shortage of psychiatrists and about how many people come to me for referrals, wondering how psychiatrists can broaden our reach,” she said of The Reflective Doc podcast, which as of this writing features over 50 episodes. “I wondered if I could, in some way, be part of sharing reliable information. The podcast was my way of trying to teach and share in an egalitarian way. It’s free and people can listen to it anywhere.”
And, she adds, her North Dakota heritage was never far from mind when she began conceptualizing the program.
“Coming from a family of physicians and teachers, I wanted to share high quality mental health information with everyone,” she continued. “I was shaped in my thinking by my roots, remembering both sets of grandparents and great-grandparents growing up poor in rural North Dakota.”
Those grandparents include Melvin Jacobson, and his wife Geneva, a nurse who was legendary around Elgin for her “painless shots.”
“He did everything – not only deliver babies and perform surgery, but he fit eyeglasses and he did veterinary work,” says Grossman, acknowledging that his father-in-law was an incredible role model for practicing rural medicine. “And he did dental work. He did it all. And it was a blessing to have him to sit down and talk to about medicine. He was a reason why I really pushed hard to go into primary care in North Dakota.”
This legacy is why Robert and Patricia chose to honor this first of many Jacobson/Grossman physicians by establishing the Dr. Melvin Sander Jacobson MD & Geneva Jacobson RN Endowment with the UND Alumni Association & Foundation. The endowment provides scholarships for medical students from North Dakota, with preference given to students interested in rural medicine.
The scholarship has already helped reduce the debt burden of several UND medical students.
“I always considered myself as hitting the lottery,” concludes Grossman, a former associate professor of family medicine for the SMHS who served as president of the North Dakota Medical Association and in 2006 was named North Dakota’s Outstanding Rural Health Provider. “I was born in probably the finest country in the world and I ended up living in the best state of the union – North Dakota. I was able to watch my children grow, and was able to watch my grandchildren after I retired. I was able to practice medicine in a frontier-designated area for 34 years, and I’m very proud of my three children.”
And so is the University of North Dakota proud of Grossman and his entire family of alumni.