They came to a church — a big one — set amid snowy fields of hollow corn stalks and decaying pumpkins.
The church wasn’t big enough. They stood three deep Friday at the back of First Church of God in LaPorte, Ind. They overflowed the overflow room. They had to park their cars in the neighboring Chevy dealer’s lot.
They came for Dr. Tamara O’Neal, whose life was remembered for a compassion that extended far beyond her taxing shifts in the Mercy Hospital emergency room.
In death, O’Neal lay in a silver-gray casket, a single red rose on her chest, as 600 or so family and friends came to pay their respects. None of the two dozen or so people who spoke mentioned Juan Lopez, her ex-fiancé, who killed O’Neal as well as two others, before turning the gun on himself Nov. 19.
“Tamara was the reason we got through medical school,” said Dr. Breana Taylor, who attended medical school with O’Neal and, like her, is African-American. Taylor was flanked by about a dozen of their fellow medical school classmates.
Taylor, who paused several times to collect herself, recalled how O’Neal would constantly encourage her friends to get through the rigors of medical school.
“If someone didn’t show up five minutes before a test, she would be calling you,” Taylor said.
Taylor also jokingly recalled O’Neal “dragging” her to outdoor concerts to see 1990s era bands.
“Tamara’s drive was singular,” said Dr. Brad Bunney, the emergency residency program director at UIC, where O’Neal went to medical school. “She was going to be an (ER) physician and no one was going to stand in her way.”
Bunney described her as “an angel,” adding, “and all of our hearts are broken.”
Even after her residency ended, O’Neal could often be found volunteering at blood pressure screenings or doing high school physicals, colleagues said.
On weekends, you’d find her heading home to her native Indiana, to LaPorte to listen to her brother, LaShawn preach the Gospel.
As a kid, O’Neal sang Gospel favorites with her Bible-centered family.
“There are only two of (in the family) who can’t sing — and you’re looking at him,” said one of O’Neal’s cousins, Turrell O’Neal, who led the “O’Neal Family Choir” during Friday’s service.
As the service ended, the pallbearers carried Dr. O’Neal to a cream-colored hearse. Her parents, Glenda and Thomas O’Neal, followed soon after. Dr. O’Neal’s mother, sobbing and supported by family, called out “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”