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A caring surgeon, struck down in an act of senseless rage

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn


Michael J. Davidson, M.D. ’96, was a heart surgeon, one of a fraternity well known for its bravado, but family, friends, and colleagues remember him as one of the gentlest souls ever to wield a scalpel.

He practiced in an area of medicine where a clear divide separates cardiac surgeons from cardiologists, but he trained as both. He spent unhurried hours with patients and their families, answering their questions, calming their fears, and earning their gratitude—until, one morning in January, the son of a patient shot Davidson outside an exam room in Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston. Davidson died hours later, despite the best efforts of his colleagues.

His assailant, a 55-year-old man from the Boston area, was subsequently found dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police said the shooter blamed Davidson for his mother’s death in November.

“Surgeons are not known for their bedside manner, but Michael had it in spades,” said Terri Halperin, M.D., Davidson’s wife. “That is why the fact that a patient’s family member would take Michael away from us makes it all the more devastating.”

At his funeral in Wellesley, Mass., Davidson was recalled as a problem solver who could take apart and fix a refrigerator or install a hardwood floor. He did his own electrical work. Before coming to Yale, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton, where he was a competitive fencer and president of the soaring club. In college he taught himself to play the guitar and played in a rock band. He decided to run the Boston Marathon on his 40th birthday and finished with a respectable time.

“We would have everything from live lobster races on the floor of our apartment, to the annual tradition of our Passover turkey, to 10-course, freeform Asian explorations with five woks going,” recalled Joshua M. Rosenow, M.D. ’96, his medical school roommate for three years.

In interviews, others who knew him struggled to understand how Davidson had become the object of rage. “None of it makes sense,” said Jamie McCabe, M.D. ’04, who trained under Davidson at BWH for two years. “He was a calm and thoughtful guy, an extremely hard worker, and very dedicated. He was just a genuinely sweet person.” Davidson’s thesis advisor, Robert J. Touloukian, M.D., remembers him as “very soft-spoken, intelligent, inquisitive.”

“There are people in surgery who are fundamentally aggressive. Mike was fundamentally a very gentle and caring person,” said classmate Samantha Hendren, M.D. ’96, now a colorectal surgeon at the University of Michigan. “That makes it all the more unjust that his life ended violently.”

Davidson was director of endovascular cardiac surgery at BWH and a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. During his residency, he moved from Duke to Boston to be with Halperin, and he completed fellowships in endovascular surgery and cardiac catheterization and in cardiac surgery.

Frederick C. Welt, M.D. ’92, met Davidson at BWH. With their colleague Andrew C. Eisenhauer, M.D., they led the team that implemented transcatheter valve replacement at BWH. The minimally invasive technique had been pioneered in France in 2002 and, according to Welt, “involved cooperation between surgeons and cardiologists—not always an easy thing to do.”

“Mike was incredibly talented. He was already obviously a well-trained surgeon, yet he took a year out of his life to cross-train in the world of interventional cardiology,” Welt, now at the University of Utah, wrote in an email. “It was an effort that took time away from the OR, and he paid a financial price for that in terms of the operative time that he gave up. But he was completely committed, and … he developed into somebody who was really as good with those skills as anyone at the table.”

Davidson recognized that the dividing lines between disciplines were “weird and arbitrary,” added McCabe, his former trainee, “and that the best way forward was building those really tight bonds between interventional cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery to provide a kind of whole new spectrum of care.”

According to Michael J. Zinner, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery at BWH, Davidson “was one of only two or three cardiac-trained surgeons in the country that were doing this kind of work and would go on … to make incredible innovations in this area.”

Davidson’s former chief, Ralph M. Bolman III, M.D., agreed. “Mike had a vision for a new heart doctor, one that is really going to be, and is, the doctor of the future,” Bolman said. “He was one of the very first to act on this vision.”

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