On hospital rounds Dr. Thomas Graboys listened carefully to a chorus of beating hearts, placing his stethoscope on the warm, damp backs of bed-bound patients. As each sat forward, he reached behind to flip the pillow. Asked why he took time for this simple courtesy, “he would imitate what it felt like to the patient to lie back on a cool, dry pillow,” Dr. William Rigby, a brother-in-law, recalled in a eulogy.
“These small gestures just came naturally to him,” said Dr. Caren Solomon, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a former student of Dr. Graboys, who was 70 when he died in his Chestnut Hill home Jan. 5 of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body disease.
In a city never lacking for medical luminaries, Dr. Graboys built a formidable resume. A cardiologist sought by patients around the world, he was part of the “dream team” of physicians who diagnosed a heart ailment in Celtics star Reggie Lewis, who died in 1993. Dr. Graboys also served on the advisory board for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, as a clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as president emeritus of the Lown Institute, and as a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He ran road races and joined his cardiologist friends in a rock band, the Dysrhythmics, taking up drums in his 40s with the joyous enthusiasm he brought to all endeavors.
Then more than a dozen years ago he began noticing symptoms of Parkinson’s and, later, the dementia of Lewy body disease. He set aside his practice in 2005, writing in “Life in the Balance,” a bracing 2008 memoir, that his “patients didn’t want to leave me, but in the end I had to leave them – for their own good.” With his body betraying him for even simple tasks and his mind slipping in and out of focus, “writing this book, telling the story of a degenerative neurological disease from the inside out, is an act of defiance,” he wrote, adding: “This book is the only way I know to continue, in a sense, to be a doctor.”
A physician with “the art of healing in his soul,” Dr. Graboys “was a jewel in the crown of medicine,” said Dr. Bernard Lown, who founded the Lown Cardiovascular Center and Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation, along with cofounding International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Praised for his habit of sitting close to patients during consultations, sometimes knee-to-knee and never behind a desk, Dr. Graboys listened so long and so intently that he “knew more about many of them than their own families,” Lown said in a eulogy during a service a week ago in Harvard’s Memorial Church. “He realized that the art of medicine was far more difficult to master than the science.”
Dr. Graboys “used to give out his home number to all of his patients – not just his favorites,” his daughter Dr. Sarah Graboys Valeo of Manchester-by-the-Sea said in her eulogy. “Many of the calls would come in the middle of our family dinner. He always took the calls, he always listened, he always took the time to assuage any worries. His compassion for others didn’t end when he walked out the door of his office.”
Solomon, his former student, said that “we all wanted to be like him” and added that “there was a Tom Graboys fan club in our class.”
The youngest of four children, Thomas Barr Graboys was born and grew up in Fall River. While his siblings followed their father into practicing law, Dr. Graboys announced as a boy that he would be a doctor. His mother, a nurse, was pregnant with Dr. Graboys during the end of World War II while working in Truesdale Hospital, where he began working as a teenager, learning to draw blood.
“He was a very handsome, charismatic individual,” said his brother, George, the former CEO of Citizens Financial Group in Providence. “If he wasn’t a physician he could have been a matinee idol.”
Dr. Graboys graduated from Tabor Academy, Cornell University, and New York Medical College, and served as an Air Force officer in Texas. Returning to Boston, he completed his medical training, became involved in the antinuclear movement, and later served on the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine. Throughout his rise in medicine “I felt he was a student of the human condition,” his brother said. “He understood humanity in a way that went beyond physicians prescribing this or that for various conditions.”
In 1968, Dr. Graboys married Caroline Rigby, whose “idealism and determination” as director rescued the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote when Mrs. Graboys died of cancer in 1998.
“When my mother was alive they were always in the kitchen with the music on, dancing while the meal was being made,” said their other daughter, Penelope Graboys Blair of San Francisco.
Amid his very busy life, Dr. Graboys arranged his schedule to attend his daughters’ sports events, and ran with them, too. “We always knew we were first, that the family was first,” Penelope said. “He would move the planets to make sure he made it to a game.” Among his possessions, she recalled in her eulogy, was a letter from his father with the observation: “The only greatness there can be is unselfish love.”
In 2002, Dr. Graboys married Victoria Tenney Baker, an interior designer he first dated at the suggestion of his daughter Sarah, who said in her eulogy: “He was lucky to have found in his life two strong, independent women to whom he was devoted.”
In addition to his wife, two daughters, brother, and brother-in-law, Dr. Graboys leaves his stepchildren, Jennifer Hinton of San Rafael, Calif., Carson Baker of Pound Ridge, N.Y., and Olivia Baker of Santa Barbara, Calif.; and 11 grandchildren.
Near the end, the physician who once sat comfortingly close to patients had to place his lips by the ears of visitors, conversing in a near-embrace. “When I saw him two weeks ago, he said, ‘When do you think I should end it all?’ It was very hard to understand him, his voice was barely a whisper and his eyes were filled with anguish and agony,” Lown said. “We all hold onto life, but he knew when to let go.”
Peter Zheutlin helped Dr. Graboys write his memoir, which was subtitled “A Physician’s Memoir of Life, Love, and Loss with Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia.” Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Dr. Abigail Zuger called it “a small wonder” and added that Dr. Graboys “does one of the best jobs on record of doggedly unpeeling the onion-skin layers of alternating ego and vulnerability that encase the doctor turned patient.”
Unsparing and unsentimental, Dr. Graboys examined his decline with candor that would give the most confessional memoirist pause, writing about “the tremors and involuntary jerks of the hands and arms; the drippy nose; the sweats; the old man’s stoop; the gaped, open mouth – I’m deeply embarrassed by it all.”
Parkinson’s and Lewy body disease, he wrote near the book’s end, “have taken much of the density, richness, and texture from my life, and moved much that was once within my grasp to a place beyond my control. However, between the limbo of illness and the anger and despair it often spawns, there is a better place – a life beyond illness still to be lived.”