Staff at the University of Minnesota’s newborn intensive care unit paid tribute to their founder this week at 4:15 a.m. — the precise time each day that Dr. Ted Thompson would call for his morning update on babies in the 48-bed facility at Amplatz Children’s Hospital.
“He was our teacher, our founder, our mentor,” a staff member announced Monday over the intercom. “A man who always had an answer, a hug and a smile.”
The beloved 70-year-old physician died Sunday from a heart attack suffered during his early-morning exercise routine. In a long medical career, he was a U pediatrics professor, an adviser to hundreds of medical students and a busy neonatologist at Fairview Southdale and Fairview Ridges hospitals. Part of his legacy in the state was developing a system for transporting critically ill newborns from outlying areas to major medical centers.
“There are quite a lot of things we’ll be scrambling to fill in,” said Dr. Joseph Neglia, head of the U’s Pediatrics Department. “He was just the consummate educator and he was always very engaged in the clinical part of medicine.”
Thompson’s death ended more than four decades of leadership at the U’s medical school, where he is remembered as someone who taught professionalism and humanity to medical students by keeping them focused on patients and patient families. He devoted countless hours to one-on-one sessions with medical students as an adviser, often going to bat for them to solve problems.
“He absolutely detested arrogance in physicians,” said Dr. Kathleen Watson, the U’s senior associate dean for undergraduate medical eduction. “He was a champion for students and getting them to be good doctors.”
Watson said Thompson followed a heartwarming annual ritual on “match day” — the all-important day when medical students are assigned their initial residency. He would display a tattered yellow piece of paper that he had received on his own match day, telling students what a privilege it is to be a doctor.
“I can’t imagine the school without him,” said U medical student Annie Jacobsen. “I feel in a lot of ways like he was my grandfather.”
Mallory Yelenich-Huss, president of the medical school’s Class of 2014, said Thompson successfully interceded for her and other students recently when they were having trouble with a supervising physician at a clinical site. “He really had students’ backs,” she said. “He was a high-level person who would listen.”
Lynette Thompson said her husband’s work was his life. One of their rare getaways was to spend occasional long weekends at their second home in Durango, Colo., where the doctor would go fly fishing. The couple recently donated $300,000 to build “Thompson Healing Garden” outside Amplatz, melding her interests as a volunteer master gardener with his devotion to healing sick newborns.
Theodore Robert Thompson grew up with one brother in Vandalia, Ohio, and studied chemistry at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to the Twin Cities with Lynette in 1969 to start his pediatrics residency at the U. Six years later he joined the school’s faculty.
“He was up and out of the house every day at 4 a.m.,” Lynette said.
A memorial service is scheduled for noon Friday at Lakewood Memorial Chapel, Lakewood Cemetery, in Minneapolis. Thompson is survived by his wife and their daughter, Beth Patton of Orlando, Fla., along with three grandchildren.