Listening, Learning and Leaving a Legacy

Dr. Luis Tomatis
Dr. Luis Tomatis

From the Grand Rapids Magazine April 2018 issue. Available on newsstands now or via subscription.

Sometime back in the mid-1990s, Dr. Luis Tomatis initiated a daily ritual of hosting tea at 4 p.m. in his downtown office. For the 20 years since then, Tomatis — a former chief of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth, former professor of cardiac surgery at Michigan State University and the founding president of the Van Andel Institute — has welcomed colleagues, friends, college and hospital presidents, and students, many of them medical students, for conversation, tea and cookies. (“I love cookies,” he said.)

In an age where connectivity is only a swipe away, Tomatis said he has found that people still crave good, old-fashioned gab. “Despite the communications that we have, (people) — especially the young people — don’t have anybody to talk to and to listen to them,” he said. “I confess, I am a good listener.”

Tomatis and his guests talk about their careers, about relationships, about values and goals and dreams. With young people, he talks about choices. “Most of the younger people already know how to solve their problems,” Tomatis said, “but when they talk to someone, they learn they know what to do.”

In February, Tomatis released “Tea at Four,” a book that encapsulates the everyday wisdom of his teatime conversations. Part memoir, the book includes the stories he has perennially told his guests: “It was the best way for me to communicate them to future generations,” he said.

In the book, Tomatis tells of growing up in Argentina, the son of a civil engineer and a housewife, and of his early desire to be a doctor, “possibly because a very good friend of our family was a physician, a very elegant man who used to do the house calls, and when he left, everybody felt good,” he recalled. “And I wanted to be like him.”

Tomatis shares his experiences as a surgeon-in-training ― of treating the “King of the Gypsies” for hepatic colic and delivering a baby on a Buenos Aires street. He writes about living under the Peronist government and serving in the 6th Regiment of the Cavalry Concordia; about sitting by the beds of cardiac patients, praying, and traveling to Angkor Wat with his wife; about virtue and character formation and elegance and faith. And about leaving a good legacy.

“I am an incorrigible optimist,” Tomatis said. “If you live well and do well, you will leave something. Your passage in this world will be marked by what was left behind.”

“Tea at Four” is available at Schuler Books & Music.

*Photo by Johnny Quirin

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