- Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel address the media on Nov. 19, 2018, following the death of four people, including the shooter, after an attack at Mercy Hospital. (Chris Walker and Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Slain Chicago doctor broke off engagement with her killer weeks before deadly Mercy Hospital shooting
Tamara O’Neal’s family gathered in her parents’ living room in rural LaPorte County, Ind., on Tuesday, they traded stories about their love for a woman who had found her way in life as an emergency room doctor.
But there was one subject they were reluctant to talk about: Juan Lopez.
Lopez had killed O’Neal, his ex-fiancee, on Monday in a violent confrontation at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center in Chicago. The shootout also claimed the lives of a police officer and a pharmacist, as well as Lopez.
As recently as September, Lopez and O’Neal were engaged, with a wedding date fast approaching. But O’Neal had broken it off just weeks before she was to exchange vows with Lopez, said her aunt, Vickie O’Neal. It was unclear exactly why.
Her father, Thomas, chose his words carefully.
“The only thing I could say for that: She broke off the engagement; he couldn’t get over it,” he said.
Indeed, Lopez had confronted O’Neal on Monday to demand the engagement ring back, a police spokesman said. And Lopez had a history of threatening domestic violence. In 2014, a judge granted a restraining order against him for his ex-wife.
But O’Neal’s family members said they never could have imagined that the relationship would come to such a violent end.
“This was a total surprise to us,” O’Neal’s father said. “We knew that there was a disconnect there, but nothing to this magnitude. We never expected this.”
Instead, the family talked at length about their love for a daughter who had blazed a trail as the first doctor in the family.
She enrolled at Purdue University to study child psychology. While there, she was in a lab where she held a human brain, her father said. That was her breakthrough moment, when it clicked that she wanted to go to medical school, he said.
After receiving a bachelor of arts from Purdue, she enrolled in the summer of 2007 in a certificate program at Southern Illinois University — a program designed to give students the necessary coursework required for medical school.
It took nearly two years to finish the program, and in the spring of 2009, she enrolled in medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, graduating in 2014. She wasted little time diving into what she loved. Her first job, which lasted for nearly a year before she moved to Mercy, was as an emergency room physician at Franciscan Health in Michigan City, Ind.
For Trevonne Thompson, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at the University of Illinois, the news of O’Neal’s fatal shooting was particularly devastating. O’Neal had a bright spirit and a deep desire to help others, he said.
“From the time she was a medical student, she really stood out as someone very kindhearted,” said Thompson, who was O’Neal’s adviser and had known her since 2010. “She always wanted to reach back and help others, whether that was one of her patients or another medical student.
O’Neal didn’t have the typical path to medical school and entered as an older, more mature student, Thompson said. She distinguished herself from other students because not only was she focused and disciplined, but she also chose emergency care so she could reach the more vulnerable patients, he said.
So when Thompson heard there was a shooting at Mercy, the first thing he did was text his former student whom he had remained so close to. Normally, she’d respond immediately. When he didn’t hear back, Thompson said he started to worry.
“Part of her decision to go into this field was because so many people are underserved and emergency care is their last resort,” he said. “She felt emergency care was where she had the most to offer to underserved communities.”
As a black medical student, O’Neal made it her mission to connect with other African-American medical students so they could support each other through the notoriously grueling learning process, said Dr. Breana Taylor, a vascular neurology fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine who attended medical school with O’Neal.
The summer before she started school, O’Neal rounded up about seven other black students and told them they would get through it, together.
“She’d make sure everyone had the notes that we needed,” Taylor said. “She’d put together our study group. She’d send you a text to wish you good luck. She was a source of continuous encouragement at a time when life seemed tough.”
O’Neal’s group started calling itself “OHQ” for one hitter quitters — which meant the members vowed to take every exam once and pass it on the first round. That meant they’d study together, coach and quiz each other so there would be no failures in their group, Taylor explained.
“Tamara valued keeping us all together and doing whatever she could to help us all succeed,” Taylor said. “She organized us, and it was that bond that got us through. She was the one that would randomly call to check on you. She was that person who became the connective thread in the group.”
O’Neal also had the fortitude to deal with traumatic injuries, her father said. It was “nasty stuff,” he said. “She used to send us pictures or try to tell us stories all the time.”
Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel address the media on Nov. 19, 2018, following the death of four people, including the shooter, after an attack at Mercy Hospital. (Chris Walker and Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Whenever O’Neal saw any patient in the emergency room, she asked about dangers in the home, including domestic violence. It is just one of the questions doctors ask patients during the triage process, said Dr. Patrick Connor, director of the emergency department at Mercy.
O’Neal’s fatal shooting was a reminder that doctors face the same challenges in life as the people they treat, Connor said after a Tuesday news conference outside Mercy Hospital. Domestic violence can touch anyone, can happen anywhere. Even in a place designed to provide care, he said.
Like many others interviewed, he turned the focus of his comments to O’Neal’s exceptional qualities.
“If I were to collapse right now and she was around, she was the person I’d want taking care of me,” he said.
He paused to pull out his phone. Just hours before O’Neal was killed, she took a selfie with a colleague. Both beaming, the photo was likely the last picture taken of O’Neal, Connor said. “That’s her, that’s who she was,” he said, showing the photo. An “absolutely bubbly, fantastic personality.”
Through her professional success, she never lost sight of her family.
The second of three children, she made weekly trips from her apartment in Chicago to the Christian Fellowship Worship Center in LaPorte, Ind., where her older brother, LaShawn, was the pastor. She was the choir director for about a year and a half, he said.
His sister could sing and play piano, he said. She was often a perfectionist who demanded excellence but was an open and joyful spirit.
She and her younger sister relished family get-togethers. The would often have contests like who could decorate their Christmas tree earliest, said her sister-in-law Jennifer O’Neal.
Or who baked the best dessert that was eaten the fastest, Her specialty was crab rangoon and spicy cabbage, her family said.
“She was the pride of our family,” O’Neal’s uncle, Anthony Bean Sr., said over the phone. “She was the only doctor in our family. I think she knew that, and I think that was part of her motivation, too, every day.”
Beane, assistant basketball coach for Southern Illinois University’s men’s basketball team, fondly recalled O’Neal stopping by his hotel to visit with him when he’d come down to play SIU while coaching at Illinois State. She was in the medical preparation program at the time, and would stop in after her night class. They would talk and laugh late into the night.
“It was just so refreshing because I knew she was on a road to really be successful,” he said. “I never thought those times would end so quick.”
- Mayor Rahm Emanuel
- “I ask each of us to hold our children, our loved ones all a bit closer,” Emanuel said. “Remember what is important in life and that there are others who are part of our larger family who will have a tear and a hole that will never heal–always a scar.”
- “This tears at the soul of our city,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a press conference Monday night. “It is the face and the consequence of evil.”
- The 38-year-old physician graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago in 2016 and had worked as a resident at Mercy for two years. She raised money for disadvantaged children and led her church choir, Connor said, choking up with emotion and pausing frequently.
- “That was her one thing she wanted … to be able to go to church on Sunday,” Connor said.
- John Purakal, MD ( @JohnPurakal )
- I knew her, trained with her, saved lives with her and tonight, tried to save her life. Tonight, I broke down in front of my coworkers when we lost her, and tonight I held hands with her mother in prayer. Tonight, we lost a beautiful, resilient, passionate doc. Keep singing, TO.
- The Root
- Natalie Degraffinried
- If you see the pattern, you’ve probably discerned that black women die from homicide far more frequently than the average, as well.
- It’s mind-boggling at this point to even try to come up with anything else to say to the men who do this, who watch it happen, who contribute to a culture where this has become terrifyingly quotidian. Stop murdering women. Stop murdering your partners. Stop abusing people you’re supposed to be caring for.
- Stop ignoring us when we beg you to stop.
- Natalie Degraffinried