Remembering a rare man

Sunday, Oct. 30, will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of one of Boston’s true heroes: Dr. Thomas S. Durant.

An extraordinary man in so many ways, Tom Durant brought happiness and comfort to thousands, even tens of thousands, during his lifetime – not only in Boston and Washington with the high and mighty but also around the world in refugee camps in Cambodia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and many more.

Tom had gifts that few of us have. He could be tough as nails taking on authority figures who didn’t pay enough attention to the weaker and poorer among us. And he was a humble man, frequently taking the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift that everyone else avoided. He was the first to say, “I’ll go” when a disaster of any kind presented itself. Sometimes you might hear that Tom had gone to the Middle East before a story about a tragedy appeared in the press.

Yet throughout his life, a bright sharp humor came forth with every step he took. Smiles and laughter lay in his wake wherever he traveled.

For a look at this man of remarkable talents and a truly caring nature, read the book “Bantamweight Archangel: The Life and Afterlife of Thomas S. Durant, MD” in which a group of mostly cynical newspaper journalists whom Tom met at home in Boston and during his medical travels around the world give their impressions of this rare man. Two longtime Boston Globe writers and editors, David Nyhan  and Marty Nolan, commissioned and edited most of the articles. David was responsible for the title and Marty took over the editing after David died. Both of these journalistic giants loved and respected Tom Durant.

In addition, David Halberstam, Loretta McLaughlin, Mike Barnicle, Kevin Cullen, Brian Mooney, none of them easily fooled, have written warmly in praise of Tom Durant.

The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who became a good friend of Tom’s after they met in Vietnam, also contributed a heartfelt article.
In many ways, Dr. Durant still lives on. The memory of the man is the spiritual force behind the Thomas S. Durant, MD Fellowship in Refugee Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, his home for most of his doctoring life.

When Tom was in his final days at the hospital, he laid the groundwork for the fellowship that would be named after him. Few at the time thought the idea would grow and contribute to world health as it has. His close friends Dr. Larry Ronan, now the director of the fellowship program, and Bill Reilly have made it their mission to ensure the program’s success.

Dr. Kris Olson of MGH was the first fellow selected and has become a most loyal advocate. Two nurses, Grace M. Deveny and Katherine T. Fallon, came next. They have maintained close ties to the program and have written about their experiences working with the “Bantamweight Archangel.” Two MGH doctors, Ann Y. Kao and Susan Tredwell, rounded out the first five fellows to take on refugee missions as Durant Fellows and they are now important figures in the program with Dr. Ronan.

The idea behind the fellowship was to create a cadre of MGH personnel who could, on a moment’s notice, head for disaster areas as they occurred around the world. After ten years, 21 Durant Fellows have, over periods of six months and more, experienced the tragedies of the refugee camps and gained a clear sense of the effort required to help meet medical needs on the ground. They learned that ingenuity and a strong constitution are essential elements for the tasks at hand and that improvisation is required, given that these camps rarely have full supplies of drugs and medical equipment.

Eleven more Durant interns have experienced disaster coverage for shorter periods of time: in Haiti, after the earthquake, at Banda Aceh in Southeast Asia after the tsunami, in South America, and South Africa.

That’s 32 Dr. Durant/MGH clones to deal with the years ahead.

Tom Durant would be very proud of this legacy if he were alive to appreciate it, but you would never know. He would laugh, tell some sort of a joke, and be on his way to help someone else.

Those of us who were lucky enough to be his friends are very fortunate that we came to know him and his passions.
As Oct. 30 comes closer, let’s offer a prayer of gratitude that such a man walked among us.