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From menial jobs to a Tufts neurologist, a doctor’s long and torturous journey

Dr. Peter Tatum painted in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge. The black and white piece (at left) titled “Neuro” was inspired by a friend and mentor who died of COVID recently.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, snow melt dripping onto the slick bricks of Graffiti Alley in Central Square. Peter Tatum, quiet and intense, already has been at work for hours, spray-painting a long, horizontal tribute to a cherished mentor who recently died of COVID-19.

Tatum has another mural going on the opposite wall, where he is applying the finishing touches to a work that features his artist nickname, Hyphen-One.

“It smells like victory, doesn’t it?” a passerby asks, stopping to admire the murals. “A little bit,” Tatum, 37, replies in a thick New Jersey accent, a hint of a smile creasing his lips.


As Tatum bends to his work, his baggy black pants, paint-speckled pullover, and close-cropped Mohawk don’t yield any clues about his day job — as a fourth-year resident at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, in neurology, no less.

By any measure, Tatum has led an improbable life. He was born dependent on heroin and cocaine, lived in foster care, immersed himself in New York’s hip-hop world, and bounced from one dead-end job to another before deciding that he wanted to become a medical doctor.

“I never really got along with people who had regular dreams and aspirations,” Tatum said. “I’m very surprised at how life turned out.”

Tatum has been shot at, beaten, and had his car repeatedly vandalized during a chaotic period two decades ago that left him careering from confrontation to confrontation in northern New Jersey. Although he showed an aptitude for art, was a promising basketball player, and had released a couple of hip-hop albums, he also had a succession of menial jobs, including at McDonald’s. And none seemed to presage a career in medicine.

Resident neurologist Dr. Peter Tatum (center) and Dr. David Thaler, chief neurologist, examined Loyda Ortiz in the emergency department at Tufts Medical Center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Now, Tatum wears a white lab coat as he makes the rounds at Tufts, visiting patients with mentors who don’t seem fazed in the least at roaming the halls with a doctor sporting a Mohawk and loose-fitting black pants.


“Usually when I walk around, I look like I’m delivering food,” Tatum said with a grin.

On a recent round, he was accompanied by Dr. David Thaler, Tufts’ chief of neurology, as they visited a 37-year-old woman who had complained of vertigo the previous evening, couldn’t walk, and had vomited through the night.

“How are you feeling? Are you still feeling dizzy?” Tatum asked the patient, Loyda Ortiz of Revere, his voice a blend of congeniality and concern.

He gently instructed Ortiz to follow his finger from his forehead toward her eyes, tested her reflexes, and asked if she could feel his touch.

“The vessels look good,” Tatum told Thaler after checking her eyes.

Later, Tatum flashed a big smile as he met with Bobby Pizzarelli, a 32-year-old epilepsy patient from Portland, Maine.

Dr. Peter Tatum was joined by his children Valentina, 5, and Xander, 11, while painting at Graffiti Alley in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Pizzarelli has had a device implanted in his head that monitors brain activity and delivers countershocks when he has seizures. While Dr. Joel Oster checked with Pizzarelli about his condition, Tatum intently observed the interaction. Pizzarelli’s seizure dog, Zola, waited near his feet.

“Our fingers are crossed,” Oster told Pizzarelli.

Tatum’s long road to Tufts began in 2010 with the birth of his first of four children, a life-changing event that prompted him to pursue a medical career. But his undergraduate studies were almost exclusively in art and painting, at community college and Montclair State University. So, to give himself a chance at medical school, Tatum enrolled in a post-bachelor’s pre-medicine program at Rutgers University-Newark.


“On the first day of the program, I said, ‘Hello, I am here for the post-bachelorette program,’ ” Tatum recalled. “Everyone in a room full of educators and prospective doctors laughed at what I said. I didn’t know why, and I almost left that day.”

But he persevered, mastering subjects that were “extra difficult because I literally never took any math or physics or chemistry or biology or anything. But I got 100 on every test, studying 16 hours a day at the gym,” which had long been a sanctuary for Tatum.

While at Rutgers-Newark, he was fired from a job yet again, this time as a direct-care employee at an orphanage.

From left, Dr. Joel Oster and Dr. Peter Tatum talked with epilepsy patient Bobby Pizzarelli at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Afterward, “I realized I had two years of unemployment, maximum,” to somehow get into medical school and find a way to pay the tuition and other bills, Tatum said.

The last unemployment check arrived one month before he joined the officer training program in the Air Force, which would pay his tuition at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, N.J.

He graduated in May 2018, but more obstacles arose.

A month later, after finishing his first week of an internship, Tatum suffered a saddle pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening blood clot in the lungs.

“I just laid down on the ground and couldn’t breathe,” Tatum recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘This is it,’ and tried to stay calm and conserve my energy.”


As a result, Tatum received an honorable medical discharge from the Air Force with the rank of captain. The discharge also meant that a radiology residency scheduled for 2019 at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Virginia was rescinded.

“I was a military doctor in a military residency in a military hospital,” Tatum explained. “The only doctors that can continue in that residency are active duty.”

The discharge left him scrambling for new options, and he began calling hospitals on his own. Tufts took an interest in Tatum’s striking background, interviewed him in the New York area, and accepted him.

Dr. Peter Tatum sorted through his paint while working on a piece in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“We’re lucky to have him,” said Oster, the Tufts neurologist. “Peter is an amazing person.”

Despite all the setbacks, Tatum said he has “always believed I could do whatever I could. My goals are usually the ones that allow me to go the distance.”

Tatum said he is fascinated by neurology, by the creativity he finds among neurologists, and by the unknowns and innovation possible in its practice. At heart, Tatum said, he considers himself an artist first and foremost. Neurology holds a parallel appeal.

“I thought the brain was cool. I like areas that aren’t known 100 percent,” he said.

Tatum’s artistry extends to music. At age 17, he recorded his first original song. Two years later, he was signed to a record label and was the lead vocalist in a 10-piece funk band. He also performed beatbox — a form of vocal percussion — at Madison Square Garden and other large venues, Tatum said.


“It was music, 24/7, for like nine years, traveling all over the place, recording all kinds of stuff, sleeping on couches,” he said.

Painting also is a longtime refuge. Tatum won a high school art competition with the first piece of art he ever created, an acrylic painting that he began on Sept. 11, 2001, and which commemorates the attacks.

“This is like going to the beach for me,” Tatum said of the peace he finds in art. He’s even painted the once-drab cinder blocks that line the small room where neurology residents gather at Tufts Medical Center.

“Imagine what the wall looked like before he did that,” said Thaler, the neurology chief, tilting his head toward a bright mural, dominated by blue and white paint and the word “Tufts.”

Tatum made his way to the neurology clinic.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“If you told me I could, I’d paint every wall in the whole hospital,” Tatum said.

Sometimes, Tatum will travel to Graffiti Alley from his Watertown home between hospital shifts, creating art there between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. to take advantage of the quiet and solitude. One recent night, he painted a portrait of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“If I can’t sleep, I’ll just get up, come paint, and then go to work at 7” in the morning at the hospital, Tatum said. “If I’m excited about something, I don’t need to sleep.”

Tatum will finish his residency at Tufts in June. After that, he plans to pursue a fellowship at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in clinical neurophysiology. His goal in medicine is to become an innovator in brain-related technology.

In the meantime, about that Mohawk?

“It’s bug repellent,” Tatum said. If someone doesn’t approve, he added with a smile, “they’ll look right over me. I don’t even have to think about having someone like that in my circle.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at