Tommy hasn’t been part of my life for over thirty years, except for the memories. Soon, that’ll be all I have.
Tommy is a year and a half older than me, but was always light years ahead intellectually and academically. He was the brightest medical student my later mentor Bill Arnold had seen at University of Illinois, and Bill recommended Tommy to his own mentor, the then young chief of medicine at U of M Bill Kelley. After a slightly twisted training with a medicine residency and chief residency interposed with a rheumatology fellowship including a stint in Kelley’s lab, he signed on as faculty to the Division headed by the man who hired me, Giles Bole. When I first met Tommy, he looked up at me and asked the usual question “did you play basketball?”. I gave him a retort he didn’t expect “no, were you a jockey?”. Little Tommy and big Bob became fast friends after that. He attended my second rotation on the Arthritis service, where we set the census record. I enjoyed our constant banter, and tried tripping him up with obscure references. He later said rounding with me was like “rounding in a minefield”. But nobody got the better of Tommy for long. Fellows trembled under his Jesuit logic with some occasional Greek thrown in for good measure. But we learned. Oh did we. Sometime after he left, the Division named the award that goes to the fellow with the best teaching skills the “Thomas D. Palella Award”, not that any winner has come close.
Shortly after I got offered a job, my beloved chief Giles got kicked upstairs to become an associate Dean. Of course, once you have a job, it’s time to buy a house and get married, which I did. Tommy served as my best man.
Irving Fox was interim chief for a couple years before Kelley decided Tommy, at the ripe age of 36, was ready for the task. As Kelley had taken on the whole department of medicine at that age, he didn’t think age was all that important, if you had the talent, which Tommy certainly did. Tommy was a terrific chief. Fellows loved him. Faculty uniformly respected his fair, firm manner. But the job wore on him and less than four years after he took it, he announced he was leaving to go into private practice in suburban Chicago and by 1990 he was gone. I may have seen him once since. In 2000, I bought a card and rustled up signatures of those left behind who still knew him. The card was intentionally sick: a nice picture of Burton Tower inside which I inscribed “10 years since you jumped, and some of us still miss you”, recollecting the horrible moment on when Regent Sarah Goddard Power jumped to her death 3/26/87, witnessed by students milling to get to their 10 o’clock classes. I never got a response from Tommy, but I’m sure he got the joke.
The little runt had a way with women. When I arrived, he’d been squiring the tall, blonde, sassy head nurse on the Arthritis ward, whom married man Giles took a shine to, and married her out from under Tommy, who didn’t take long to find a replacement, beautiful dark-haired Julie, whom he married shortly after I met Kathy, showing me the way.
Let me allow the e-mail I posted from the plane Sunday to fellows I remembered from the 80s tell the rest of the story:
Hello old friends
I have some sad news to pass along, which some of you may know already. I was trying to connect with Tommy Palella to send him a PDF of an article on Arthroscopy I’d just gotten into Rheumatology (Oxford). He’d been with me in the trenches at the beginning and I thought he’d be curious as to how things turned out. When I struck out at all my usual ways of finding an e-mail, I contacted Bill Arnold, my scopy mentor, who had known Tommy as a medical student at U of I. I wasn’t prepared for Bill’s reply. I’ll say to you what he wrote to me “sit down before you read this”.
> Tom is dying of lung cancer metastatic to his brain.
> He retired a year ago. In March or so he became confused and a CTs revealed tntc Mets in his brain with a mass in his chest. He is undergoing chemo.
> His former partner and one of my fellows called me with the news in May. His wife asked that no one visit. I’ve heard nothing more in the last 6 wks.
> Tom essentially went off the grid after leaving AA. I think I saw him once in the last 25 years. He was the brightest student I ever had.
> I don’t think he wants to be contacted by any of us.
Tommy was our chronological peer but light years ahead of us academically. I’m sure none of us can forget being victims of his Jesuit logic with a little Greek thrown in for good measure. Pause, remember, reflect. At our time in life, such things happen. May you all push on many years before others are spreading such emails about you.
And this is an addition after the e-mail:
Yes, Tommy liked his smokes. I always saw it as a sort of self-medication, helping to comport his supremely superior brain to the wants and needs of us under him. But to have that great brain slowly taken away by the cancer is too sad to comprehend, and something I’ve seen personally with my dad and with Joe, Kathy’s brother Bob’s best friend. I suppose my peers should expect this sort of thing starting to happen at our age. As we lose this great, smart, special man, we should feel fortunate we ever got to know him at all, and treasure the memories.