Upon learning that there would be multiple victims arriving at University of Chicago Medicine after a shooting at Mercy Hospital on Monday, emergency room physician John Purakal sprang into action.
He knew a physician at Mercy Hospital was among those shot, and while the details were hazy, Purakal was prepared to do what he could to save them.
Purakal’s readiness turned to shock, however, when he saw that he’d be treating his former colleague: Tamara O’Neal.
“I was doing my best to help in every way that I could,” Purakal said in an interview Tuesday. He surrendered control as the primary physician so that his judgment wouldn’t be clouded as he worked to save her life.
Friends of O’Neal said few things mattered more to her than her patients and her spirituality. Purakal said he met with her family and prayed after the physician died.
“They’re a very loving and caring and faithful family,” he added. “They’re going to have strength in their faith to help them get through all of this.”
Police say the shots were first fired in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital on Monday afternoon when the gunman, identified as 32-year-old Juan Lopez, got into an argument with O’Neal, his former fiancee. The Chicago Tribune reported that O’Neal had ended the engagement and that Lopez went to the hospital to demand his ring back.
Officials and witnesses that night described how the argument escalated when a friend tried to intervene. Lopez brandished a gun, causing the friend to flee, and shot O’Neal repeatedly. He then ran inside the hospital and exchanged gunfire with officers.
Two others died as a result of Lopez’s rampage: Dayna Less, a 24-year-old pharmacy resident, and Chicago police officer Samuel Jimenez.
Lopez also died at the scene, though it was not clear whether he was killed by police or a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A 38-year-old native of La Porte, Ind., O’Neal drew admiration from her peers for her success in medicine, especially as a black woman. She and Purakal were both in the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago between 2014 and 2017. There, they treated patients and worked together in the emergency room.
After graduating, O’Neal became a doctor at Mercy Hospital. Her colleagues there say they’ll miss her outgoing personality and willingness to go out of her way for others.
“You would think being a new graduate, she would be kind of shy and timid around [people] with many, many years of experience,” said Adele Cobbs, assistant director of the emergency department at Mercy Hospital. “But she wanted us to know who she was immediately.”
When Cobbs’s father fell ill, she said, O’Neal sat with him, held his hand and talked to him as if she had known him for years.
“And this was in no more than three weeks of me knowing her,” Cobbs said.
O’Neal also strove to do right by her patients and wasn’t afraid to fight for them.
Patrick Connor, chairman and director of the emergency department at Mercy Hospital, said O’Neal would stay well after the end of her shift to make sure her patients were taken care of.
When she did go home, he added, she would call and ask the other doctors how her patients were doing.
“If we were all ill and Tamara was going to be our doctor, we would be in the greatest hands possible,” he said.
Upon starting her job at Mercy Hospital, Connor noted that O’Neal requested to have Sundays off to attend church because her faith played a central role in her life. This dispensation was not one the hospital typically granted, Connor said, but O’Neal was willing to work evenings and Fridays to make up for it.
“It was the basis of everything for her, even in her relationship, the church was where she went for counsel,” Cobbs said. “It was where she harvested her strength.”
Both Connor and Cobbs described how difficult it would be to move on without O’Neal, whom they called a family member in the “strictest sense” of the word. The three spoke frequently at work and through text messages, Connor said, and their staff formed a cohort the likes of which is rare in emergency medicine.
Coming into work on Tuesday, there was a sense of sorrow and loss, Connor said. He summed up the feeling in one word: “Devastation.”
“In the spirit of Tamara, she would say, ‘I’m glad you’re going to work today, keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Connor said.
He added, “Though this tragedy has happened, the only thing that it will do is make us more resilient, and I think that’s a testament to who she was.”