To us, he was “Doctor Tom.” He was like no ordinary doctor. He was the ideal GP — the general practitioner — what we called back then “the family doctor.” Dr. Tom served the community before the medical field has come to consist mainly of specialists. He was not the older, kindly physician portrayed on TV or in the movies. His work clothes were black jumpsuits, not tweeds. With his dark, dashing good looks, he was more Zorro than Marcus Welby. He was Ben Casey before there was Ben Casey. For over 30 years, he was a smiling presence in our neighborhood. He was our star that shined its brightest in the gloomiest of times. The best prescription in the world was Dr. Tom’s smile — a reassuring smile. I always told my wife Fran that I never left Dr. Tom’s office without feeling better than when I entered it.
Dr. Tom seemed to have a canny insight into the psyche of each patient. He certainly “got” me. His ability to read his patients was perhaps more important than his imposing medical knowledge. I’m one of those patients who go into a doctor’s office with knees shaking at the sight of a white coat. But with Dr. Tom, I felt as if I were going to visit a friend as much as a physician. He’d shake my hand. Flash the classic smile. His smile was better than the most potent blood pressure pill.
Dr. Tom had a bulletin board inside his homey little office at 18th and Bigler. He posted articles warning against the evils of smoking when many of our health professionals were still in the pocket of the tobacco industry. He was into the benefits of a good diet and eating organic food before that was trendy. Dr. Tom was hip when doctors weren’t considered hip.
Today, we have concierge doctors for those who can afford them. For a fixed fee, these physicians promise you 24-hour access. Dr. Tom was our concierge doctor — without the added fee.
All of us who were lucky enough to be his patients have wonderful memories of Dr. Tom’s dedication and compassion. Each of us could tell you stories about how he went far beyond what was expected of the honored family physician, even back in the day. Let me tell you a few of my own—
My mother-in-law Rose became terminally ill with cancer. She was not a patient of Dr. Tom’s. That didn’t matter to him. What mattered to Dr. Tom was that Fran was worrying herself to death over her mother. Rose desperately needed a doctor who would make house calls (house calls had already become a rarity by that time). Every Monday night, Dr. Tom came to Rose’s house. He hid his black medical case (to protect against being mugged) inside a Strawbridge & Clothier shopping bag — a bag that advertised CLOVER DAY sales. Dr. Tom’s visits were aimed as much about calming Fran and her sister as comforting their mother. He refused to charge us for the weekly visits. He faithfully visited Rose until the day she passed. My wife called Dr. Tom when her mom took her last breath inside her home. He signed the official death certificate that enabled us to avoid an upsetting, for us, autopsy. If you were a patient of Dr. Tom, his holistic medical care automatically extended to your immediate family. He also wound up making house calls to my mom when she became ill. Mom wasn’t his patient, either.
When our son was injured playing football across the street from Dr. Tom’s office, Dr. Tom treated him almost immediately. If you were ill and called his office in the morning, Dr. Tom treated you by noontime. I once received a positive on a home fecal test for colon cancer. I made a panicky call to Dr. Tom. He reassured me that the test resulted in many false positives — he himself had the experience — and got me in to see a specialist the next day. I was clear.
Once, Fran suffered tremendous pain after a dental procedure. The dentist’s office was closed before she could get a pain prescription. One call to Dr. Tom, and we had the prescription. Dr. Tom was like a one-man calvary coming to the rescue in the midst of a hostile attack. His wife, Sandy, once told us about the time Dr. Tom saved the life of a passenger at the airport who had suffered a heart attack before boarding a plane. Dr. Tom was our superhero, sans cape. In the early days of cable TV, he appeared regularly with Chuck Gagliardi. He also hosted his own radio show on WHAT-AM.
The high cost of malpractice insurance forced Dr. Tom to curtail his office hours and finally caused him to retire. He found that teaching more than filled the void. He brought to the teaching profession the same kind of devotion he brought to his practice of medicine.
The last time that I saw Dr. Tom, I was in the check-out line at the local supermarket. Fran had recently suffered a temporary bout of amnesia, and while still in line, Dr. Tom immediately confirmed the medical diagnosis she’d received. He was familiar with the illness. She’ll be fine, he reassured me. Then he flashed his killer smile.
And that’s how I’ll always remember Dr. Tom.