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Thomas Farragher

A heartbroken family and a circle of friends mourn a doctor who found the light in everyone she met

Leah Zallman was killed near Davis Square after casting her ballot on Election Day

Leah Zallman, 40, was an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Leah Zallman, 40, was an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

As an Election Day for the ages approached, Leah Zallman — who dedicated her professional life to caring for the most vulnerable — turned her thoughts to the rich, multicolored fabric that helps shape America.

It was the America that she knew well. There was hope there. And strength. And a time-tested resilience.

"As we celebrate National Immigrants Day,'' she wrote in late October, "we also celebrate the determination, ingenuity, and spirit immigrants continue to add to our melting pot of cultures we call America.''

The 2020 election, she said, held promise. It held worry, too.

"It comes at a time when our country deeply relies on immigrants and at the same time is advancing policies that are harmful to immigrants and threaten the health of US born individuals,'' she wrote. "It comes at a time when our interconnectedness with humanity across the globe has been made clear by a pandemic that has affected all of our lives.''

Surely those words helped propel Leah Zallman, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as she walked last week into her polling station at a Baptist church half a block from Somerville’s Davis Square.

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What happened next — at about 1 p.m. on Election Day — was the unthinkable, an incalculable loss that is still being processed by legions of her friends and colleagues, by her family members, by her young sons, whose hearts are broken.

Leah Zallman, 40, was at the intersection of College and Kidder avenues. She was crossing from the south to the north side of Kidder as a Chevy Colorado pickup truck turned perilously toward her. Somerville police, who are investigating the crash, found her unresponsive at the scene.

Her husband, Nadav Tanners, a software engineer, was working from home when his doorbell rang about midafternoon.

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"There were two Somerville police officers there and I’m not a nervous person in general so I tend not to worry about things,'' he said. "They said, ‘Is this the home of Leah Zallman?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s my wife.’ ''

Grief-stricken and in a panic, he drove to Massachusetts General Hospital — to the intensive care unit, where he took notes, memorializing the doctors' words and their efforts to save his beloved wife’s life.

"Pupils were dilated . . . brain was swollen . . . sedated, will keep her calm tonight . . . Things not going as they would hope.''

And then, just after 8 a.m. on Nov. 4, this: "News is the worst. Leah’s condition — from when she arrived yesterday — was ‘incompatible with life.’ They had a sliver of hope yesterday, but her condition worsened, and that hope is gone.''

And then her husband wrote a simple and love-filled remembrance that has echoed since: "Leah Zallman was an incredibly giving person who left everyone in her life feeling blessed, loved, and improved by their contact with her.''

When we spoke the other day, he recalled the woman who had an incandescence about her.

"She cared very passionately about human rights issues and health care and understanding the real benefits of immigration and combating the lies about the perceived harm caused by immigrants,'' Nadav told me.

"It was important to her. Our politics lean left. We were pretty freaked out about the campaign, and the anxiety relating to the election — and the anxiety relating to the pandemic.''

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Leah Zallman was so many things to so many people who simply and profoundly loved her.

They revered her friendship. They watched in wonder at her professional accomplishments as the director of research at the Institute for Community Health and an assistant professor at Harvard.

They sweetly smiled as she doted on her two young sons, the children she and her husband placed at the center of their universe.

They knew the arc of her remarkable life’s journey.

Amy Smith is one of those people.

Smith, a primary care physician who works on food insecurity projects, called Leah her "magical friend.'' A friend, she said, who made the love and affection she showered on friends and family seem effortless. A friend who was good “in every way, in every setting.”

"No one is perfect,'' Smith told me. "But there are people who are so good, you know? People who are just so good in every way. And when they are making choices, the good always prevails. And that’s just the way she was.''

Andrea Juncos first met Leah when they were both high school seniors, visiting Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania during an accepted students' weekend in the spring of 1997. A fast friendship formed — and then solidified.

When Juncos moved to the Boston area in 2013 to attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, her old college roommate helped her look for an apartment, and later shop for a wedding dress.

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"She knew that the most important things in life are the people you care about,'' Juncos told me. "She’s the friend who watched out for you. ‘When can we go for a walk?’ ‘When can we celebrate your birthday?’ She’s funny but also soulful. Just so kind. She loved life.

"She embraced all that life has to offer.''

Memories like that come flooding back now, comforting those who knew her best and loved her most. Treasured memories now tucked away forever.

Sujatha Srinivasan has memories like those. She and Leah lived in the same dorm in college, shared many of the same classes, and studied together late into the night as their close friendship took shape.

"It was a transformative relationship for me,'' Srinivasan said. "It was a very intense start to a friendship when we were very young. One of the most important friendships of my life.''

And the feeling was mutual.

"She found ways to minimize her problems and care for people,'' Srinivasan said. "I have never in my life found someone who is that generous in spirit. She made people want to be better. She made me a kinder person.

"She was so humble. She never talked about her accomplishments. She never wanted it to be about her. She made herself out to be this goofy, silly person, but I knew how brilliant and talented she was. At her medical school graduation, she won every single humanitarian award that the school can give.''

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The most precious gift she bestowed on Nadav Tanners is the love they professed to each other even before their engagement in 2007 — almost a full seven years after they first met.

They were living in Boston’s South End then and she was about to begin her residency program at Boston Medical Center. Nadav found some fancy stationery, on which he sequentially wrote out the lyrics to "Dream a Little Dream of Me.''

Stars shining bright above you // Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’ // Birds singing in the sycamore tree // Dream a little dream of me.

That sweet engagement note was followed by their wedding on Aug. 31, 2008, in Washington, and a honeymoon in Argentina. They were both 28 years old then.

Their older son, Eli, was born in August 2011. Kai followed in 2014.

"One of the movies that my wife and I liked was ‘The Princess Bride,’ '' Nadav said. "And there’s a line in there that says something like, ‘You two had true love and that’s such a rare thing in the world.’

"I feel like I’m holding that in my mind now. It hurts so badly because we had it so good. I want to be grateful for all the good we had.

"Because we really did.''

At her graveside service the other day under a canopy of trees in full autumnal splendor, family and friends sat on folding chairs. A violinist performed as Leah Zallman was recalled as careful and joyful and loving; as dedicated and tireless and loyal. A champion of justice.

"I am heartbroken,'' Nadav Tanners said. "We are all heartbroken.''



Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.