Dr. Thomas B. Ferguson, in his office circa 1980′s
Dr. Thomas B Ferguson, who went to the spiritual hospital in the sky last month at the age of 90, was a big deal in the world of thoracic surgery. Not that I would know. I know about as much of the world of thoracic surgery as Dr. Ferguson knew about the world of high fashion. (But my mother explained it this way: Uncle Tom, as I called him when I was a little boy, was the Tom Ford of heart surgery. Does that clarify it for you?) The reason why I was so moved by his recent passing, however, had nothing to do with his highly decorated, internationally acclaimed career. The reason was that I would not be doing what I’m doing today, I would not be living in New York, chasing my dreams around the world, surrounding myself with creative people – I would not be the person I am today without him. And I don’t know if I ever told him that.
A bit of biography on TBF: He was born on May 6th, 1923 in Oklahoma City, OK. His interest in medicine was sparked by a grandfather who was a horse and buggy doctor in Boggy Depot, OK, at the turn of the century. He attended Duke University and Duke University School of Medicine. At Duke, he met Elizabeth Shanley; they were married in 1948, and stayed married for 65 years.
My mother worked in various capacities for Dr. Ferguson for 42 years. She started a young lady as his secretary and ended a grandmother as his managing editor at a series of medical journals. I didn’t see much of him when I was little, but because of his relationship with my mother we always spoke of him, we always sought his approval, and I was always told to be on my best behavior when he was around. (I never did. Which is why I think he liked me.) When I moved to New York, he always asked after me, always checked in on me. He would write me motivational emails when I felt things weren’t going my way, he always told me I could do whatever I wanted. I knew he was in my corner and I never wanted to disappoint him.
Polaroids of Dr. Ferguson and my mother, early in their professional relationship
The last time I saw Dr. Ferguson was three weeks ago in New York. I had flown back for a few days amid the middle of the Cannes film festival and he was in town for a heart valve procedure. My parents were in town from St. Louis too, and so was his son, Dr. Bruce Ferguson, another cardiothoracic surgeon. The five of us met for dinner the evening before he was admitted to the hospital. It turned out to be one of his last meals. Thinking back on that meal is surreal and bittersweet. Dr. Ferguson didn’t order the steak that night because he thought it was too expensive, which I remember poignantly because it was the last time he ever ordered a meal. (Let that be a lesson for us: Get the steak if we want it.) At dinner I asked him about hiring my mother and what she was like as a young person, and I’m happy I did. It was the first time, as an adult with pasts of our own, we could talk about adult things. He teased my mom for being pushy and bullheaded, and she loved every minute of it.
What will stick with me forever about that dinner was when he said how proud he was of me for moving to a city where I knew no one and carving out a life for myself. I had earned his approval. It was something. I didn’t tell him at the time, which I will always regret, but it was his encouragement — both to me and my parents — that convinced me to move to New York and chase my dreams. Like most overly confident people, beneath my exterior of ambition lies a deep core of insecurity. I wasn’t sure about moving to New York, and neither were my parents. It was Dr. Ferguson who told me I could do it, and told my parents to let me. And I will be thankful for that for the rest of my life.
The two of us created an interesting paradox, an unlikely relationship: He didn’t understand my world and I certainly didn’t know much about his. But I’d like to think there was mutual respect and admiration. He was a great doctor, but more importantly he was a wonderful man.
My mother, flanked by Dr. Ferguson, Sr., and his son, Dr. Ferguson, Jr., the last time I saw him, at dinner in New York City in 2013