Thomas B. Graboys — a life that balanced skill with compassion
by John Pastore
Tom had been a stalwart leader in the Lown Cardiovascular Group, named for Bernard Lown, a founding co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1985. Especially in the years leading up to the Nobel, Tom was active in IPPNW and in our US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility.
But Tom was even more than that.
He had a brilliant mind and a legion of patients who virtually worshiped him, as much for his humanity as for his skills as a Harvard cardiologist.
Tom was known to the rest of us in Boston cardiology as a premier practitioner of non-invasive cardiology in its truest sense. He spoke and published widely on the over-use of expensive and often unnecessary invasive technologies.
Even more important, he argued tirelessly in favor of listening to and treating as a fellow human being the whole patient. Countless times on ward rounds, I have told residents and fellows that my friend Tom Graboys across town would have encouraged us, with evidence to support his view, “not to rush to angioplasty or coronary bypass surgery on this patient.”
But until the publication of his remarkable book, Life in the Balance, I did not know that Tom, after examining his patients, would sit with them on a couch, almost knee to knee, never with a desk interposed. I did not know that he gave each patient his home phone number. And I did not know that he always wrote out longhand some encouraging suggestions after his patient visits, never giving the patient a pre-printed sheet of instructions.
In essence, Tom was in many ways the best of us at holistic cardiology care.
Tom recounts in his deeply personal book what he lost in the last several years: his cherished wife Caroline to colon cancer in 1998; his career to severe Parkinson’s with Lewy body dementia in 2005; and, his graceful athleticism and the confidence it conveyed. Tom did not pull any punches. The Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia ravaged his body, his mind, and sometimes his spirit.
What he retained and regained is equally important, though. He found love again and was remarried, to his remarkable Victoria, and he was surrounded by the love of his daughters and their families.
In the last several pages of Life in the Balance, he reflects on what advice Tom Graboys, the skilled and compassionate physician, would give to Tom the patient with a devastating illness, or to any patient facing what he has faced. The wisdom and poignancy of those pages convinced me to put this unique and unflinching story into the hands of every cardiology fellow at my own medical center. Despite having been a cardiologist for more than 40 years, I learned from Tom’s unforgettably honest story how to live and practice better.
To the end, he was as graceful a patient as he ever was a physician. Both as patient and as physician, he never lost his capacity to teach and to heal.