Michael Palmer: A doctor first, in the truest sense of the word

I was saddened earlier this week to read, first on Facebook as posted by his son Daniel, that Michael Palmer had passed away after suffering a heart attack and then a stroke, while going through customs in New York on the way back from a trip to Africa.  Many of you know Dr. Palmer as the bestselling author who wrote medical mystery thrillers like “The Sisterhood” in 1982, “Extreme Measures” in 1991 which was made into a movie with Gene Hackman and Hugh Grant, and more recently “The Fifth Vial” and “The Last Surgeon.”  I knew him as something else.

I began the second half of 1980, my junior residency year in internal medicine, as a happy newlywed.  My best friend from medical school, who had followed me to Boston from Philadelphia after a difficult internship year there, was not so lucky.  She had finished medical school with a divorce and a significant amount of debt, and what had started as drinks with friends in bars to blow off steam after a tough exam had turned into a habit of daily heavy drinking to cope with the pressures of internship and the loneliness of living in a strange city far from friends and home.

By the time she arrived in Boston for our second year of residency, she was a functioning alcoholic, dutifully coming to work every day and falling apart when she got home at night.  Until she couldn’t hold it together anymore.  After a few false starts at AA meetings, where she met the man who would save her life, she became increasingly abrasive and combative when inebriated.  Blackouts and an arrest followed, and finally on the night of my twenty-seventh birthday, our friendship nearly ended when she had to be escorted from the restaurant where we had gone to celebrate.  I withdrew to my work and my newly purchased suburban home, and I distanced myself from my friend.  I was done.

It could not have been more than two weeks later that I got a call from a man who identified himself as Michael Palmer, an emergency room physician at Falmouth Hospital.  He wanted me to know that he had met my friend at an AA meeting in Boston.  He said that she had been so good about coming to meetings regularly at first, so that when she stopped coming, he became concerned.  I don’t know what made him go to her apartment the night she nearly killed herself, but he did, and found her crumpled on the floor, unconscious from an alcohol overdose.  He literally picked her up, got her in the car, and drove her to Newport, Rhode Island to a detox and rehab facility, where she voluntarily agreed to be admitted and treated. To this day, I believe he was her guardian angel where I had failed her.  Today she is a practicing anesthesiologist-critical care specialist who has been sober for more than thirty years.

The first announcements of Michael Palmer’s death bore no mention of his work with alcoholic and drug addicted physicians, of which there are sadly far too many.  I remarked on this to my husband, who said, “You should write something about it.”  I said, “Perhaps Michael did not want that part of his career to be known to the public — perhaps that’s why they call it Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Fortunately, the obituaries in the Boston Globe and the New York Times gave credit where credit was due.  Knowing Michael, I suspect that he was as proud of his work with impaired physicians as he was of his writing.  In fact, even more proud.  My husband still remembers the business card that Michael gave him when we had dinner with him and his significant other out on the Cape.

It read, “Michael Palmer, MD– Minor Author.”  He was a doctor first, in the truest sense of the word.   He cared.

Miranda Fielding is a radiation oncologist who blogs at The Crab Diaries.

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