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Slain Brigham doctor mourned as achiever who put patients first

Mourners left funeral services for Dr. Michael J. Davidson at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley.
Mourners left funeral services for Dr. Michael J. Davidson at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Terri Halperin stood before her husband’s plain pine casket and took a ragged breath.

“By now, you’ve all heard that my husband, Michael Davidson, was a superb physician,” she told nearly 1,000 mourners gathered Friday at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. “Perhaps, most importantly, he cared immensely for his patients and their families.”

Davidson was known at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for his gentle way with patients’ families and his willingness to operate on the most delicate hearts. He used to lie awake at night worrying about his patients, and he was always receiving letters and gifts thanking him for his care.

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“That is why the fact that a patient’s family member would take Michael away from us makes it all the more devastating,” Halperin said, gasping back sobs.

The 44-year-old Davidson was shot to death Tuesday morning at the hospital by Stephen Pasceri, who then took his own life, police said. Pasceri’s mother, who had been a patient at Brigham, died last year.

As the crowd swelled Friday morning, they whispered to each other:

“Unfathomable,” one man said to another. “How many families he saved,” murmured a woman, shaking her head.

Friends and family who spoke during the service recalled a man who had wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon from the time he was a little boy; a tinkerer who dismantled a broken refrigerator that the repairman couldn’t fix; a father who adored his three children and could not wait for the birth of his fourth, a daughter, due in April.

“Everyone’s been talking about Michael’s impressive academic and medical achievements, but I think if you asked him, he would have said his children were the greatest gifts he’s leaving on this earth,” Halperin said.

From the time Davidson was 2 years old, marching into nursery school without a backward look, he was a fearless adventurer, said his mother, Susan Davidson. At 5, he decided he wanted to play the violin. Later, he taught himself piano and guitar. He built models of airplanes and learned to fly real gliders in college. He climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park to surmount his fear of heights.

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“I told him once, ‘Michael, you were given too many gifts,’ ” his mother said. “There was no question he would go into medicine. He always wanted to fix people and make them better.” And his calling was the heart. His father, Robert Davidson, was a cardiologist, and Michael wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“But where I walked, he ran,” Robert Davidson said. The two were close, and when his son learned to fly-fish, he made them each a custom rod, and they began taking father-son trips. “He was not only my son, he was my best friend and my hero,” his father said.

At Brigham on Friday, the funeral aired on a live stream. In the hospital’s main lobby, a table bearing cards, flowers, and stuffed animals stood before a high wall covered in personal remembrances written on small slips of paper:

I can think of no doctor who cared more deeply for his patients

Descanse en paz, vaya con dios

To live in hearts left behind is not to die

All morning, staff and patients stood quietly before the wall, some adding notes of their own. Anant Vinjamoori, a first-year resident in internal medicine, stopped to write a few words and tape the note among the others. He said he hoped Davidson’s death would move those who practice medicine not to grow more distant, but “rather to try to understand them more.”

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So he wrote:

You have, and always will be a source of inspiration to the practice of medicine.

At the Wellesley temple, Davidson’s colleagues and friends described his life as a whirlwind of activity, much of it revolving around his family.

Close family friend Alissa Brotman O’Neill recalled a typical day Davidson spent on call, when he saw patients, new consults, and prospective fellowship candidates; repaired an aortic dissection; watched his daughter perform on stage in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory;” played guitar for his son in the early morning hours; took his girls to a soccer game; taught his daughter to use a micro-
scope; and went to lunch with friends.

“This was his normal: a jam-packed life filled with his children’sjoy, his groundbreaking cardiovascular pursuits, his miraculous surgeries, his dedication to his patients, and his love for his wife and his family,” O’Neill said. “He may have been only 44, but what he has done with his time here on earth far outlives the oldest man.”

Davidson and his wife were about to embark on their next great adventure when he was killed.

“Michael was very much looking forward to the birth of our new baby girl,” said Halperin, who is a plastic surgeon. “We have been excitedly planning for our new arrival.”

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The couple met in November 1999, she said, at Duke University, where they were both studying, and fell in love fast. By May 2001, they were married. When she was accepted to a residency program in plastic surgery at Harvard, he followed, transferring his residency to Brigham.

Halperin remembered the night they brought their first daughter home from the hospital: The child would not sleep, and Halperin stayed awake crying with her, unwilling to wake her husband because he had surgery in the morning. But Davidson came and took the baby anyway, and told her to go to sleep.

“It is in those small moments that you realize how much someone loves you,” she said. The marriage foundered, and they divorced. Two years later, she said, they realized their mistake and remarried, celebrating with their two daughters, Kate and Liv, now 9 and 7 years old.

“These past five years have been the best years of our lives,” she said. They had a baby boy, Graham, now 2. Davidson delighted in taking his older children backyard camping, frogging, fishing, and teaching them to ski.

“Many people will never know the kind of love that we had,” she said. “He lives on in our hearts, and in the smiles of Kate, Liv, Graham, and our new baby girl.”

As the pallbearers carried the casket out of the temple, the rabbi spoke:

“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com.

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