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It’s a rare moment when Thomas J. Cusack, MD, MS, is not actively engaged in some activity. When he’s not on call as a neurointensivist in MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Critical Care department, he may be found running or pedaling his stationary bike, playing with his 8-month-old daughter, or reading the latest addition to his voluminous personal library, which accompanied the New Jersey native across the country and back during his medical training.
Indeed Dr. Cusack’s biggest challenge came when he couldn’t move at all. While cycling during an extended break between undergraduate and medical school, he was hit by a car, and seriously injured.
"I faced a lot of questions—from how would I get through the day, to whether I’d be able to use my left arm again,” he recalls. “That really piqued my interest in learning how patients and their families deal with similar challenges, particularly end-of-life situations, and how it influences their treatment strategy.”
Dr. Cusack’s yearlong recovery was aided by the loving support of his girlfriend, now wife, Lauren Drake, MD, who is now a primary care physician at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore. Even with his many interests, Dr. Cusack says he never really considered another career path.
“I come from a long line of pharmacists and nurses,” he says with a laugh, “but I’m the first physician in the family.”
Love of Medicine
While at what is now Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Dr. Cusack was active in the All E.A.R.S. program, which encourages medical students to provide social support to terminally ill patients who may face their hardships alone. After an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he spent his residency at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. There, he studied under experts such as Abraham Lieberman, MD, the neurologist who helped treat Muhammad Ali for Parkinson’s disease.
Deciding he was “an East Coast guy,” Dr. Cusack returned to Johns Hopkins Hospital for his fellowship in neurocritical care. Along the way, he took time out to participate in the Himalayan Health Exchange, working in an underserved part of northern India.
The timing was good, he says, as public health conflicts in the U.S. had left him somewhat disillusioned.
“It’s just you and the patient—everything else is stripped away,” Dr. Cusack says of the experience, which also “helped rekindle my love of medicine, and see poverty in a new light.”
Teamwork and Collaboration
As part of the Hospital Center’s Surgical Critical Care team, Dr. Cusack applies his skills to all types of cases, and be a resource on neurological issues. It’s the best of all worlds, he says—a highly diverse patient population, an academic connection with Georgetown University’s medical school, and an experienced, collaborative team of physicians, nurses and support staff.
"Playing rugby and working part-time in restaurants taught me a lot about teamwork, which is important in medicine,” he says.
Having also learned the value of strong interpersonal connections, Dr. Cusack regularly dips into his extensive collection of cookbooks to prepare feasts for his family and friends.
“There’s something about almost dying that makes doing things important, even if they’re just everyday tasks,” Dr. Cusack. “I’ve seen some unbelievable acts of endurance and resilience in the face of critical challenge. Yet those patients are often most focused on the practical needs—avoiding pain or maintaining their dignity. Those are lessons I try to apply to my treatment approaches, and to my own life as well.”