A Personal Tribute to Thomas R. Russell, MD

Thomas Russell

by Dr. Laurence Yee , MD

Read on November 16, 2014 in Bolinas, California 

Dr. Thomas Russell is that once in a lifetime person and personality.

The 1 in a billion person.

And it was my great luck to be associated with him.

It is virtually impossible properly thank Dr. Russell for all of the teaching and mentorship he has personally provided me and all the hundreds of UCSF medical students and surgical residents who have had the privilege of working with him.

You have had a career and family that every surgeon aspires for.

Dr. Russell served as a US Navy surgeon during Vietnam, finished as Chief Resident in surgery at UCSF under Dr. William Blaisdell and Dr. JE Dunphy, recruited to join Dr. Peter Volpe in practice of colon and rectal surgery in San Francisco at age 33, succeeded Dr. Carlton Mathewson as Chairman of Surgery at California Pacific Medical Center at age 37, and left his surgical practice in his absolute prime at age 59 as he was recruited to become the Executive Director of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago succeeding Dr. Samuel Wells.

But to me, even more important than what you accomplished as a surgeon, was how you treated all people, whether they were patients, students, nurses, doctors, or even complete strangers.

…with respect, kindness, and compassion

Whether the patient was a janitor or the CEO of the hospital, whether you were poor or rich, whether you were a medical student or the Chairman of Surgery, whether you were unemployed, uninsured, or the President of the United States, you would treat them all with same humanity and respect.

Dr Russell, you are a true leader with unwavering optimism and poise.  You possess the unique gift to bring out the best in absolutely everyone.

I first met Dr. Russell twenty years ago when I was a surgical resident at UCSF. He was a surgical rock star. He was the handsome Chief of Surgery, brilliant, and was always impeccably dressed.   When we rounded on his patients in the hospital, literally everyone would come up to greet him like a celebrity, yet he always took the time to introduce me to everyone by name as his surgical resident.   This would do wonders for any surgical residents’ self-esteem.  Every resident and attending held Dr. Russell in the highest regard for his technical expertise and ethical standards.  I still feel like the luckiest person in the world to have joined his practice.  He gave me a career and livelihood, but what I really gained was a true mentor of his many roles in life including those as a surgeon, as a son, brother, husband, father and uncle.

You loved your parents and sister, Susie, very much as evidenced by the personal stories you have shared with me, by your regaining your childhood home, and by personal affects adorning your office.  You have the perfect, loving wife, Nona, and two brainy, talented, and absolutely devoted daughters Katie, a budding pediatric surgeon, and Jackie, a future veterinarian.

Dr. Russell told me, “Laurence, treat everyone well as you move up in the world because you will likely see them on your way back down.   And never, ever, say four letter words”.

Aside from my wife Rupsa, Dr. Russell has been the most transformative person I have met in my life.  Although you are no longer here, you will continue to be my mentor as I to aspire to reach your standards in terms of professional excellence, education, honesty and compassion.

Thank you, Dr. Russell, for all you have done for me and my family.

Note:  AND   of the American College of Surgeons have also written a wonderful tribute to Dr. Russell on the ACS website.