Thomas S. Durant, MD, spent much of his life chasing catastrophe and chaos in some of the world's most forsaken and forlorn spots. From his service as chief public health adviser in Saigon from 1966 to 1968 to a trip to Honduras in May 2001 to comfort victims of Hurricane Mitch, Dr. Durant was a beacon of hope for those caught up in virtually every international crisis in recent decades.
This international humanitarian, this caregiver to the world, this complex man who called himself a "simple boy from Dorchester - with a passport," died Oct. 30, 2001 at the hospital he loved after a long and hard-fought battle against cancer. He was 73.
Dr. Durant, who served the MGH as assistant director, compiled a 35-year itinerary that reads like an atlas of modern-day trouble spots: Cambodia, Albania, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Central America, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Croatia, Vietnam, the Iraq/Turkish Border and Afghanistan. He brought food, supplies, medicine and medical expertise to some of the world's bleakest places. In his trademark Red Sox cap, he offered his unique blend of compassion and kindness, helping to soothe the embattled soul and psyche of the dispirited and displaced.
"Tom transported his skill, spirit and incredible sense of humor to the most troubled parts of the globe, bringing hope to people ravaged by war, disease, drought, poverty or politics," says James J. Mongan, MD, president of the MGH. "Tom believed with all his heart that one person can make a difference in the most hopeless places, in the grimmest surroundings. And Tom proved time and again that this was true. He made an enormous difference, and he touched countless lives."
Dr. Durant received many awards and accolades through the years, including the Humanitarian Award from the United Nations in 1995 and the Joseph Moakley Award for Distinguished Public Service in 2001. But he never considered himself a hero. When he talked about heroes, he spoke of a nurse who lost both legs in a land mine explosion in Zaire, five firemen who provided drinkable water to a disease-infested village in Rwanda and a buddy who was murdered because he had the courage to stand up to cruelty and injustice. His heroes were simple, dedicated people who marched into the thick of devastation to carry out work that was often horrific, always heart-wrenching and never simple.
Dr. Durant seized every opportunity to share word of the horrors he witnessed, spreading his message about the needless suffering that he attributed to man's inhumanity to mankind. He touched countless audiences through disturbing, poignant and humorous accounts of life in one hell after another. His volunteerism and selflessness encouraged others to become involved in international relief efforts or in community programs closer to home.
At the MGH, Dr. Durant was a familiar and popular presence, never too busy to share a story or tell a joke. Colorful and unconventional, he knew everyone and had something to say to all. He looked people straight in the eye.
Countless people called upon him for advice, referrals and recommendations. He served as a vital link between the medical community and the government, making sure that his friends and contacts in Boston City Hall, the State House and Washington understood the issues facing the MGH and its sister academic medical centers.
A lifelong resident of Dorchester, Mass., Dr. Durant graduated from Boston College in 1951 and received his medical degree from Georgetown University in 1955. He completed his training in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital. After his service as chief public health adviser in Vietnam, he joined the MGH in 1968 as a clinical gynecologist and also served as assistant director. He remained at the MGH throughout his career. He and his wife, Fredericka, raised three sons: Stephen, Joseph and Sean.