There are many words that could describe Gerry Doyle.
Husband, father, brother, grandfather, physician, friend.
But if I was writing his epitaph, and it pains me that I am, and was forced to choose one word, that word would be healer.
As a doctor, Gerry Doyle healed bodies. But he did far more than that. He repaired wounded souls, caring for them as expertly as he did any debilitated body part.
Gerry grew up in Watertown, the son of a father who worked the overnight shift as a radio engineer at WBZ and a mother whose dad was a fur trapper in Canada. He was a born leader, and his classmates at Watertown High elected him class president. He was a fine athlete, a state champion in both the hurdles and pole vault.
He was the first member of his family to go to college and he started at the top, enrolling at Harvard. Then-senator John F. Kennedy had offered Gerry an appointment to Annapolis and Gerry would have been a fine officer in the Navy or the Marines, but he wanted to be a doctor.
He bicycled from his parent’s home in Watertown to Cambridge for classes. He paid his tuition at Harvard by selling vacuum cleaners. He went to medical school in Albany and did his internship and residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital, tending to the city’s poorest people.
Gerry heeded the advice the poet Robert Frost gave to Jack Kennedy, to be more Irish than Harvard. He treated the rich and the famous, but he tended to the poor and the obscure with the same dedication, the same deeply perceptive, nonjudgmental humanity. After he finished with patients, he wrote each one of them a letter, offering encouragement and advice.
He loved to help veterans and considered the medical fellowship he did at the VA hospital in West Roxbury some of his most rewarding work.
Most of his career was spent at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he worked the last 45 years and where he became something of a legend.
If Gerry ever slept, it’s news to me. He had an enormous practice and put in ridiculous hours. He was never off the clock, and any time he didn’t spend with patients he spent with his family. Whenever his daughter Kelley called him at work, even if he was with a patient, he took the call. He ran marathons and was famous for nodding off while standing up at social gatherings.
Gerry was a diagnostician of extraordinary acumen. But he didn’t know just what ailed you. He knew what cured you.
Kelley Tuthill, the former WCVB reporter and current communications director at Regis College, recalls that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago, Gerry Doyle sat her down and gave her the best advice she got during her long ordeal.
Never get too high on the good news or too low on the bad news, he told her. “You’re in it for the long haul,” he told her. “You have a good team, and you will beat this.”
And she did.
Now Kelley Tuthill tells every person fighting cancer what Gerry Doyle told her, a legacy that will outlive them both.
His calm, wise, reassuring words were more than advice to one person contemplating the prospect of mortality. They were words to live by, and Gerry Doyle lived by them.
The stars sought him out when they were in town and needed medical care. Ella Fitzgerald. Claudette Colbert. Lauren Bacall. John Kerry, the longtime senator and former secretary of state, was his patient, and John Kerry loved Gerry Doyle. Saudi royals lined up for him.
But Gerry was never star struck, and he worked as hard or harder for ordinary people. In the 1980s, there was an old woman in the North End who had an Old World fear of hospitals. So Gerry lugged an EKG machine up narrow stairs to the woman’s apartment to examine her. She settled her bill by cooking him an Italian meal that was so good that Gerry insisted he had been overpaid.
Last week, Gerry and Sheila, his wife of 50 years and the love of his life, went on their first vacation in five years, to the Cayman Islands. Last Friday, Gerry went out for a swim and never came back. He was a strong swimmer, a regular at the YMCA in Hanover. But something happened, and it remains unclear why he drowned. His autopsy is scheduled for Friday, his wife and daughter told me from the Caymans, where they have been awaiting the release of his body for a week.
When his daughter Kelley told me he was 77, I was stunned. Gerry seemed much younger. But then his was a life built on compassion and empathy, and they are ageless qualities.
Gerry had faith in more than just medicine.
And so it was little wonder that he was great pals with one of his patients, a priest named John Unni, the pastor at St. Cecilia’s in the Back Bay who is, like Gerry, a working-class soul who can relate to and enjoy the company of people no matter their color, faith, sexual orientation, or ZIP code.
Gerry Doyle and John Unni would talk to a telephone pole and how they ever got through an appointment in less than an hour is anyone’s guess. People in the waiting room would hear muffled guffaws and raucous laughter seeping from the examination room and be left wondering what the hell was going on.
On July 9, Father John will say the funeral Mass at St. Cecilia’s for his friend and doctor, Gerry Doyle, and he will struggle for words, as I have, to somehow adequately describe him.
“He was truly a gift from God,” Father John told me Thursday. “Dr. Doyle’s way of being in this world perpetuates the spirit of integrity, healing, comfort, and love, which we deeply and desperately need in our country, our church and in the world today. He tended, he listened, he accompanied, he healed.”
Gerry Doyle was a healer, and now, with his passing, we are left to heal ourselves.