I was a new doctor in 1997 when one of my patients suffered severe swelling in the throat after being given medicine in the emergency room at the hospital. I tried unsuccessfully to place a tube so the patient could breathe. I was in trouble. Dr. Thomas came to assist. He did not speak to me. He successfully placed the tube in the patient and left the room.
A brilliant physician, he towered over people at 6 feet 4 inches. An ex-college football player, and a seasoned physician at 56 years old, he demanded perfection from hospital staff, but at the same time, was extremely kind to people from all walks of life. We worked in a poor Chicago Hospital, but despite the limited resources, we always provided the best care possible to our patients. Years later, we were working again, when he suddenly collapsed onto his wheeled doctor’s stool. He said: “Seth I am having chest pain”. He then said, “Seth, I cannot get up.”
I rolled him on his little stool to an examination table. I picked him up in my arms and laid him on the table. Four minutes later, he stopped breathing. I called for all staff and resources.
A test showed a heart attack. Despite many factors in his favor – being at the hospital, immediate CPR, heart doctors present, and a new room for heart surgery, my friend and colleague, died.
While I could not save him, he taught me how to help patients survive and how to live.
After the first encounter, my next memory of Dr. Thomas was Christmas. We were working at a Catholic Hospital, so the ER had a Christmas tree and excessive decorations. I showed up for my shift, and sitting on my work desk was a giant beautiful glass Menorah. Somehow, Thomas found out I was Jewish. He understood I was left out of the holiday festivities and bought a menorah so I could celebrate Chanukah. We placed this Menorah next to the Christmas tree, acknowledging both holidays. The Menorah lasted two days in the ER. It was removed by a Christian administrator.
After a few years, I formed a company that provides ER doctors to hospitals. I asked him to join the company. Over the next 7 years, the company provided ER physicians to hospitals in some of the poorest areas in Chicago. I would get to know him, professionally and personally.
I witnessed first-hand his commitment to providing quality medical care. He fiercely advocated for society’s most vulnerable patients (the poor, elderly, and chronically ill). He had a wonderful bedside manner. He never made a medical mistake. Often, I would see him give patients money to buy medicine if they could not afford it. If an administrator was unprofessional with any of the ER staff, he put his job on the line to defend his colleagues.
Apparently, we grew up next to each other in Ohio. He was 16 years older, so we never met. He was a football star in high school. Woody Hayes, the legendary coach from Ohio State Football tried to recruit him, but his father said, “absolutely not, you are getting a real education”. He was accepted at Duke University.
Once he asked for time off because his mother needed heart surgery. After surgery, he noticed she was very white. She was losing a lot of blood due to a mistake during surgery. A nurse called the surgeon. On the surgeon’s arrival at the hospital, her heart stopped beating. No other surgeons were available, so Dr. Thomas was called upon to assist. After the surgeon had opened the chest bones, he had to squeeze and release his mother’s heart with his hands multiple times to keep the heart pumping blood while the surgeon tried to stop the bleeding. Despite best efforts, his mother died. He would not tell his family about the mistake during the surgery, and he refused to file a lawsuit.
He fell in love with and married a nurse. I had never seen him happier. A year later, he was dead.
Hundreds of thousands of patients’ lives each year have been saved from heart attacks by doctors using standard medical treatments that we used that day when he collapsed in my arms. He had no medical problems, but his father died of a heart attack at the same age.
The Fire Department, who admired and respected Dr. Thomas’s heroic commitment to patients, sent ambulances to sit guard over his body 24 hours a day until he was buried. At the funeral, hundreds came to say goodbye to this physician. He kept in touch with everyone from his life – including his football coach from when he was 8 years old.
He wanted friends and family to celebrate his life with food, alcohol, and stories. We honored his wishes by drinking the afternoon away and telling stories about his life. It sounds crazy, but I had so much fun at his funeral.
One year later, a patient called me looking to find Dr. Thomas to thank him for saving his life from a heart attack. Apparently, this patient’s heart stopped beating; he died several different times in the ER. According to the patient, Thomas would not give up on his life.
I share Dr. Thomas’s story to honor, remember his sacrifice, and inspire others to live a purposeful, generous life and to be a beacon of light even in death.
Seth Guterman: President of Emergency Care Physician Services (ECPS)-An ER physician staffing company for Chicago hospitals. Now a retired Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician and past Department Chairmen for 25 years for several emergency departments at hospitals in some of the poorest areas of Chicago.