He thought he was dying, but highway chief paved his own road to salvation
Fittingly, one of the hundred or so things that saved Tom Tinlin’s life was light traffic.
It was a Sunday in April and Tinlin, the state highway administrator, was a week into the worst headache of his life. But he’d agreed to host a fund-raiser for the Fourth Presbyterian Church, and so there he was, on a makeshift stage in the cafeteria at the Globe’s old office on Morrissey Boulevard, calling out auction items. Affable and a little sarcastic, he is suited to the emcee role — “getting up there with a mike and teasing people,” he said — and he does it annually for three South Boston nonprofits.
The headache, though? That was serious. It started at the base of his skull and pushed into his temples. He’d gone to his doctor earlier in the week (diagnosis: stress) and had been taking the pills he’d been prescribed without getting better. It’s true that he’d been working hard, and a big project was looming — the Comm. Ave. bridge deck needed to be replaced and chaos on the turnpike was looming. But stress? This didn’t feel like stress. This felt like something was really wrong.
Around 4:30, as the guests — myself included — finished off their plates of barbecue and the auction wound down, something snapped: “Headache” no longer described it. It felt like someone had taken a bat to the back of his skull.
He felt fluid rushing down around his ears, but his head was dry. He thought he might keel over, but he called the last two auction items and scrambled over to his wife, Heather.
He didn’t know it yet, but an aneurysm had burst inside his brain. The rushing fluid he felt was blood. Tommy Tinlin was dying.
“I need to go to the hospital,” he told her. “Right now.”
Tinlin is not a “rush me to the hospital” guy. He’s a hard worker with a sense of humor who grew up in Southie and stayed. About 30 years ago, he was a 22-year-old City Hall security guard with no particular life plan when Tom Menino took an interest in him. Then a city councilor, Menino began encouraging Tinlin to go back to school. When Menino became mayor, he came to Tinlin with a promise: You can come work for me, if you go back to school. So Tinlin did — first getting his bachelor’s and then his master’s degree at night — and Menino kept his word.
He rose to become Boston’s transportation commissioner in 2004. As commissioner for nearly a decade, he oversaw all traffic and transportation projects run by the city — everything from redesigning major roadways to bringing in modern parking meters. Few things get people as heated as changes to the roads they know, but Tinlin’s warm humor and good nature lent the department a lovable face.
When Mayor Martin J. Walsh succeeded Menino, Tinlin went to work for MassDOT as chief of operations and maintenance, becoming highway administrator in 2015.
That Sunday in April, he was in no condition to drive. With Heather at the wheel of their Ford Explorer, they set out for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Longwood.
Anybody who’s ever tried to drive from Dorchester to Fenway Park in time for, say, a Sox game knows what a nightmare that trip can be. You can cut up Dudley Street, go all the way up to Storrow, or maybe take Melnea Cass to Tremont and sneak in behind the Gardner. None of these are good options, often plagued by bumper-to-bumper traffic and endless red lights. Given Boston drivers’ general disinterest in yielding to ambulances, that trip can be challenging even with lights and sirens. Now imagine driving it with your life on the line.
An ambulance crew could have started treatment precious minutes before he got to the hospital, but Tinlin didn’t know what was happening inside his head — only that something had gone horribly wrong. There in the car, Tinlin began to feel himself slipping away. He thought of two things:
He thought, I need to get to the hospital alive, so Heather does not turn to see me dead before spending the rest of her life second-guessing herself. And he thinks, “What was the last thing I said to the kids? I hope it was kind.”
If the blood vessels that ferry blood around your brain are like a complex highway system, then an aneurysm is a little bit like a sinkhole on the turnpike: Until it ruptures, it can be very hard to detect; when it does, it’s a disaster. One in every 50 Americans is walking around with an aneurysm — a weak area in the wall of an artery — according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Many will never rupture; but of those that do, about 40 percent lead to death, and often quickly. About 15 percent of people with aneurysms like Tinlin’s die before they reach the hospital.
If Tinlin’s aneurysm was out to kill him, it had the time right — rush hour — but not the day. It was Sunday, and though the Sox were at home, first pitch wasn’t until 8:10 that night. Tinlin had spent the last 13 years caring for these roads, abandoning vacations and missing time with Heather and his two teenagers to see them patched and repaired, widened and repainted. Now, those roads opened before him.
Heather took the back way, cutting over to Dudley Street and following it as it split into Malcolm X Boulevard and then became Tremont Street. Taking care not to alarm her, Tinlin encouraged Heather to drive, shall we say, a bit more aggressively.
Heather pulled up to the Beth Israel emergency room, and Tinlin insisted she go park the car. He didn’t want her to watch him die. He staggered inside, where a security officer gave him a hard look and immediately, instinctively knew something was terribly wrong. Instead of shuttling him to the waiting room, the guard walked right to a doctor and grabbed him: You need to see this man, now.
The doctors at Beth Israel ran a few tests. As they prepared to wheel him back to do the intake paperwork he’d skipped on the frantic scramble in, he heard a technician’s voice go a few octaves higher. The results were obvious: He’d had an aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage. The bleeding in his head had been substantial. He’d gotten to the hospital just in time.
The next day, surgeons at Beth Israel inserted platinum into the ruptured aneurysm so it would scab over. At about the same time, Governor Charlie Baker told the Back Bay Association that Tinlin was undergoing surgery, and the support started pouring in.
Baker had earned Tinlin’s fierce loyalty long before the governor tracked down Heather’s cellphone number to ask her what the family needed, but now when Tinlin talks about the governor, he tears up. His voice breaks when he talks about Dr. Christopher Ogilvy and Dr. Ajith Thomas at Beth Israel’s Brain Aneurysm Institute. Laura Kenney, the intensive care nurse who sat not just with him but with Heather and their kids for the 12 days he spent in the hospital, is part of his family now.
“If you looked up the term ‘public servant’ in a dictionary, Tom Tinlin’s picture would be staring back at you. Tom worked hard and smart — always,” Baker said via e-mail. Tinlin “never stopped impressing people with his creativity, his drive, his support for his teammates and his love of the job. I am incredibly glad I had the chance to get to know him.”
Tinlin was preparing to go back to work this summer, hoping to see through the Comm. Ave. bridge project he’d been shepherding for the last couple years. But he couldn’t do it. He looked at Heather and thought about all the vacations he’d abandoned and college visits he’d already forgone. “I’ve missed a few things, haven’t I?” he said.
And so he resigned. He doesn’t remember much of May, but he’s spent the summer with Heather and the kids. He goes to his daughter’s softball games and sits with his son on the couch. They watch “Fear the Walking Dead,” a show about zombies whose brains the heroes must rupture to kill.
He’s not retired, he said, but his family isn’t sick of him yet. When the kids go back to school, he’s hoping to find a job again. He’s started taking meetings, trying to figure out where he can see himself next, and helping spread the word about aneurysms. If he’d forced the headache issue with his doctor, or if the doctor had ordered a test, things might not have gotten so dire.
He’s watched the bridge project this week with both interest and pride, its apparent success so far a testament to Stephanie Pollack and the MassDOT team he suddenly had to leave behind.
“There’s a part of me that really wanted to come back for this job,” Tinlin said. He loves transportation, which he said isn’t about what it is — bridges and tunnels and bike lanes and everything else — so much as what it does. It brings us where we want to go, and where we have to go; to the people we need, and to the people we love.