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Father of slain Mercy Hospital doctor: ‘Tammy’s profession was to save lives’

Tamara O'Neal

Dr. Tamara O'Neal was shot to death at Mercy Hospital in November. The University of Illinois-Chicago has established a scholarship in her name. O'Neal was a 2014 UIC College of Medicine graduate. | Provided

Tamara O’Neal loved saving lives.

The emergency room doctor thrived on the energy of administering on-the-fly medicine to whoever came through the doors at Mercy Hospital.

“She loved the action,” her father, Tom O’Neal, said Tuesday morning from his living room in LaPorte, Ind.

“She was in on a whole bunch of high-profile cases where people were shot and we’d see it on the news,” he said.

Her family was still struggling Tuesday to comprehend how she herself became a high-profile victim of gun violence.

“I never thought of having to bury one of my kids before myself and that’s tough,” Tom O’Neal said.

“She’s going to be missed and we love her so much.”

O’Neal’s ex-fiance, whose name family members didn’t want to even utter, shot and killed O’Neal Monday at the hospital.

The accused gunman, Juan Lopez, also fatally shot two other people during a shooting rampage and gun fight with cops at the hospital — Chicago Police Officer Samuel Jimenez and Dayna Less, 25, who was training to become a pharmacist.

Lopez was shot in the abdomen and his death was classified as a homicide. He also suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said.

“She was engaged to him. She broke it off a few months back and he couldn’t let it go,” Tom O’Neal said.

“Family had talked to her and basically said, ‘Cut your ties because you just can’t be friends with someone in situations like that.’ … He couldn’t let go and he took her away from us.”

“Senseless … Tammy’s profession was to save lives, the officer’s profession was to save lives, the pharmacist, all of them — except for him,” Tom O’Neal continued.

The last words the father and daughter shared were tender.

“She called me Sunday night. I was watching the Bears game and she was watching the Bears game and the game started to get tight and she said ‘I can’t take it, dad, I’ve got to go to work in the morning’ and I said, ‘They’re going to pull it off, Tammy … and she said ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow’ and I said OK. And then she said, ‘I love you’ — that’s the last thing she said to me.”

O’Neal had worked at the Mercy Hospital for two years.

O’Neal’s career path was leading her toward psychiatry — until she picked up a human brain in a lab class and became filled with awe.

After graduating from Purdue University in 2002 with a psychology degree, she took pre-med courses at Southern Illinois University before graduating from the medical program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Tom O’Neal, a retired information technology project manager.

“She always went after what she really wanted in life” her father said. At Purdue, he added, “she had a professor tell her that he didn’t think that she could become a doctor and that drove her and she proved him wrong,” he said.

Dr. John Purakal, an ER doctor at the University of Chicago Medical Center, studied with O’Neal at the University of Illinois. She was the last person he expected to see in his emergency room on Monday evening.

“I’m not someone who gets easily excited or overly emotional …, and I can tell you that as soon as I realized what was going on, I couldn’t function,” Purakal said. “I was not the same person and my team recognized that and we had another physician in there managing it primarily.”

Purakal called O’Neal “a very vibrant person” “She advocated for her patients,” he said. “She had a great, infectious smile and laugh and could put you in a really good mood.”

In a tweet on Monday night, Purakal called his slain colleague a “beautiful, resilient passionate” doctor.

O’Neal lived in an apartment near Hyde Park and loved dancing and trying new restaurants and seeing shows.

Her older brother, Shawn, is a probation officer in LaPorte County. Her younger sister, Sharita, is a grade school teacher in LaPorte.

O’Neal made sure she didn’t work Sundays in order to driver the 60 miles to spend time with her family and attend church at the Christian Fellowship Worship Center in LaPorte.

“She was a very devoted Christian,” her father said, adding that she also was choir director at the church.

Often, Purakal said, O’Neal would sing in the ER.

“…She would sing here and there,” Purakal said. “Whatever song was in her head.”

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