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Thomas Graboys, Doctor Who Wrote of Parkinson’s Fight, Dies at 70

Wednesday January 14, 2015

Sam Roberts

The New York Times - When he was just 5 years old, Thomas Graboys declared that he intended to become a doctor. As a young physician, he visited a nephew serving in the Peace Corps in Mauritania and remained for two months, treating dozens of patients a day.

He skied and played tennis and joined fellow cardiologists as the drummer in a rock band called the Dysrhythmics. In Boston, he was famous as a member of the team that diagnosed the Celtics star Reggie Lewis’s heart defect before he died abruptly on a basketball court.

In short, “he was a medical version of one of Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe,” one reviewer concluded after Dr. Graboys (pronounced GRAY-boys) published his autobiography.

But barely 60, after experiencing horrific nightmares, frequently flailing in bed, losing his memory, suffering tremors and finally collapsing on his wedding day, he acknowledged that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the onset of dementia. He informed his patients that he had no choice but to close his practice.

“My face is often expressionless, though I still look younger than my 63 years,” he recalled in the autobiography, “Life in the Balance: A Physician’s Memoir of Life, Love, and Loss With Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia,” which was published in 2008.

“I am stooped,” he continued. “I shuffle when I walk, and my body trembles. My train of thought regularly runs off the rails. There is no sugarcoating Parkinson’s. There is no silver lining here. There is anger, pain, and frustration at being victimized by a disease that can to some extent be managed but cannot be cured.”

After managing for more than a decade, Dr. Graboys died on Jan. 5 at his home in Chestnut Hill, Mass., his daughter, Penelope Graboys Blair, said. The cause was complications of Lewy Body Dementia, which was diagnosed after his Parkinson’s. He was 70.

Thomas Barr Graboys was born April 10, 1944, in Fall River, Mass. His mother was a nurse, his father a lawyer. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell and a medical degree from New York Medical College in Valhalla.

Dr. Graboys was a clinical professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School and president emeritus of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation. He served on the advisory board of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

For 30 years he was married to Caroline Rigby Graboys, who died in 1998. Besides his daughter Penelope, he is survived by another daughter, Sarah Valeo; as well as his wife, Victoria Tenney Graboys, whom he married in 2002; three stepchildren, Jennifer Hinton, Carson Baker and Olivia Baker; a brother, George; and 11 grandchildren.

“Now in the tenth year of a battle that will continue for as long as I live,” he wrote in 2012, “I have watched as huge swaths of my abilities have calved like chunks of ice falling from a glacier into the sea. My circle of friends has shrunk, the role I used to play in family life has diminished dramatically, and my medical career is over.”

“Control over my body is a formidable, ongoing struggle of mind over matter,” he explained. “As the disease progresses, my sense of myself erodes in parallel and I mourn those bits and pieces as I would the loss of a loved one.”

Reviewing “Life in the Balance” in The New York Times, Dr. Abigail Zuger prescribed the wrenching and revealing memoir for senior physicians in their prime. “Each of them,” she wrote, “could use this textbook of the graceful and courageous exit.”