Remembering Dr. Tamara O'Neal
by Anneke Metz, PhD, Interim Director of MEDPREP
All of us at MEDPREP (Medical/Dental Education Preparatory Program) were heartbroken to learn of the death of one of our own, Dr. Tamara O’Neal, who was a MEDPREP student from 2007-09. After MEDPREP, Tamara went on to complete her MD at the University of Illinois at Chicago, followed by a residency in emergency medicine. She was working as an emergency department physician at Mercy Hospital in Chicago at the time of her death.
Dr. O’Neal, who was affectionately known at “TO” by her colleagues and friends, was beloved for her smile, her kindness, and her generosity of spirit. She had a passion for helping her community and wanted to be a physician to help the people of Chicago, particularly the south side. Her love for her community was evident in all she took on in life. Tamara entered college to study child psychology, and completed her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in 2002. She then worked for several years as a case manager for troubled adolescents. She was proud of the role she played helping many of the youth she worked with to become more open and trusting, and even complete high school and attend college.
Despite her success in social work, Tamara knew medicine was her calling, and she returned to school to fulfill that dream. In applying to MEDPREP, Tamara expressed a desire to save lives in underserved communities, because those individuals’ medical care was often overlooked due to poverty. She dedicated herself to a grueling course of medical study, not to become rich or famous, but because she wanted to be a leader for change in her community, to right the wrongs, and to reach out to those who needed a helping hand. It wasn’t going to be easy, but Tamara was all-in.
Even as an aspiring medical student, she was tenacious and strong, and it was clear that Tamara had what it took to become an outstanding physician. She often spoke about experiencing many setbacks in her own life, which might encourage someone to give up. However, she always also said that she refused to give up on herself, and as a physician, would not do so on her patients, either. With that tenacity and dedication, she tackled MEDPREP, and medical school, and residency, and made it every time.
Breanna Taylor, MD, who attended medical school with Dr. O’Neal, recalled how Tamara was the driving force behind organizing her fellow black medical students into a study group that would ensure they all succeeded. They came to call themselves the “One-Hitter Quitters”—for any test, they would do it right the first time—no failures, no repeats. Tamara was driven to get there herself, but it was also important for her to mentor others along the way. This is the Tamara that MEDPREP faculty remember; someone who did not just think about herself, but always made sure everyone around her was lifted up, too.
Tamara had as a personal goal to not only be a good physician, but to be a caring role model as well. As a MEDPREP student, in medical school and a successful physician, she continued to hold that goal in her heart, and lived every day of her life with that promise. She chose emergency medicine to help those that needed her the most: the underserved who often end up in the emergency department as a last resort when they have nowhere else to turn. Dr. O’Neal was a loving and generous soul, and a tenacious advocate for the least fortunate among us.
Although she was taken from us too soon, Dr. O’Neal more than made good on that promise made those years ago as a MEDPREP student, to serve as a role model and to help others as a good physician. She made every difference to those whose lives she touched, and she made this world a better place. For her hard work, her great tenacity, her infectious enthusiasm, and her big, ready smile, she will never be forgotten. Dr. O’Neal, we celebrate all that you accomplished, and keep your passion for service, your devotion to others, and your joy for life close to our hearts. Rest in peace, and may you serve as an example to us all.