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Memories of John

"I first met John when I came to MGH as a Primary Care Fellow in 1985 (a fellowship program he established with John Goodson). I had the great good fortune to practice next to John in the IMA from that moment on until his retirement.

There is much that colleagues will say about John. I will sum it up in one extraordinarily special quality, the likes of which we will not soon see again---John was someone who saw the potential in all things.

In colleagues, John knew how to seek and draw out one's natural interests and nudge that person forward. In my case, this was opening up my world to that of prominent medical social scientists, medical historians, psychiatrists and psychologists, medical educators and on and on-- anyone who was thinking about the doctor-patient relationship writ large.

In interactions, he saw the potential, far earlier than most, in harnessing what patients brought to the doctor-patient encounter to better serve them and to sustain our ideals as practitioners of the wonderful art of doctoring.

In ideas, John saw the potential connections between the world of social science and our world of clinical practice, thinking early about how to look at these separate disciplines in overlapping and integrated ways.

In circumstances of time and place, John would look for those times when a patient might feel out of their element, whether coming from the Italian North End or from the other side of the world. He would graciously welcome them to settle in comfortably, with a kind "Welcome to the Massachusetts General Hospital!".

Finally, John saw the potential hidden in all types of doctor and patient experiences, so much so that we would often invite one another in to consult on each other’s patients (what he would call "a visit with my junior colleague" and I would call "a chance to chat with a more experienced, gray-haired consultant").

I am profoundly grateful to have been his colleague for so many years. My deepest condolences go out to all members of the Stoeckle family on your loss."

-- Carol M. Ehrlich, M.D.


"My name is Martha Pavlakis and I am the Medical Director of kidney transplantation at BIDMC. When I was a medical student at SUNY Buffalo, I did a visiting rotation for about a month with your dad. I believe it was in 1986. I count him as my first and one of my most important mentors although I think I only joined him for 4 weeks of clinic sessions total. But I took away from that interaction some lessons and approaches to patients that I not only use every day in every interaction I have with patients, but that I also teach to multiple levels of learners (students, interns, residents, fellows, post fellow trainees).

While I’m sure you have heard all about his approach to patients and read his book, I’d like to re-tell two stories from my time with him. The first was from our very first patient together. Before the woman came into the room, he showed me his hand written note from their last encounter, 6 months ago at least. In the margin, he had written “sister diagnosed with breast cancer”. He told me he did this to jog his memory. When he began the visit, he said “first, before we start, please tell me how your sister is, I know you were so worried about her last time we met”. The patient teared up, thanked him for his concern and shared that her sister was doing very well. I could literally feel the trust in the room - the patient needed nothing more to know that this doctor saw her as a whole person, and not as a collection of symptoms or illnesses. I never forgot that. To this day, although we have no more “margins” in our notes, I jot a line about anything the patient brings up that is concerning to them, even if it is supposedly not “relevant” to the care I am delivering. And I bring it up at the start of the visit, so I know the emotional landscape for this patient. And I describe this technique, often naming Dr. Stoeckle by name, when I am teaching my trainees.

The second story I recall so well is an elderly woman from the Roma or Gypsy culture. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both of whom were very confrontative with you dad. He answered their questions thoroughly and addressed their accusations calmly and kindly (“so that’s it, you’re not going to do anything for her?”). When the visit was over, he turned to me. I was stewing with my little med student sense of outrage thinking “how dare they speak to him that way?”. And the first thing he asked me was “wasn’t that fascinating?”. He proceeded to describe to me that unique challenges of dealing with a culture in which their approach to advocating and supporting their loved ones can be viewed as rude by the majority culture. Years later, I was a young attending at my first faculty position in California. Our team got a referral to evaluate a young Roma woman for a transplant, and our social worker exclaimed “Ugh - Gypsies, I hate dealing with them.” I immediately spoke up and said how much I had learned from Dr. Stoeckle, and that while Roma patients were indeed challenging, it was our responsibility to make sure that the quality of care we offered them did not suffer because of cultural barriers that once identified, really are not that hard to work with. The social worker later thanked me, saying she regretted her initial reaction and that my re-framing the consult helped her remember exactly why she went into social work. When I left that job years later, she gave me a parting gift of a photograph of 3 Roma women dancing at a market in Palestine from the early 20th century, as a thanks and a reminder of some of the value she felt I brought to the team. I still have that displayed in my office today.

I never sought out your dad during his long and productive life, to say thank you. Honestly, I wasn’t sure he’d even remember me. But as my elderly dad (who was the honors chemistry teacher at my high school) continues to have former students reach out to him to say thank you and tell them about their careers and how he influenced them, I regret not having at least called and said thank you. I will forever hold dear the lessons I learned from Dr. Stoeckle, transmitted during so few interactions, and continue to transmit them to the trainees I am entrusted to teach for the remainder of my working life." -- Martha Pavlakis, MD


I was a patient from 1976 to his retirement. My first encounter was when I presented at urgent care and he was the on-call. After he examined me, a resident said 'You just had the million dollar exam at MGH. And you can have him as your regular doctor if you say 'yes'’. Well, I said 'yes' . He eventually treated my individual family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. He seemed to appreciate connecting to families, both as a physician and on a more personal level as we grew to know him and he, us.

He was kind, humble, and a bit shy. He was brilliant as an acute observer and an extraordinary diagnostician. I appreciated that he taught me about the body, what to look for, why something needed to be treated a certain way, the statistics on diagnoses. When I needed surgery, he directed me to a surgeon that took a more 'holistic' approach. I had two choices and I asked him what to do. He said he had observed that 'the less one changes one's body over time, the better'. He allowed me access to MGH and Harvard's medical libraries when I was working on a project in bio-medicine. He gave me his home phone number. He always answered (I am sure to any patient or doctor) on the first ring. After putting in a full day at the hospital, he continued his devotion to his practice.

I consider myself blessed to have been his patient. Although I have received excellent care over the years from physicians - predominantly at MGH, Dr. Stoeckle rises above them all. He was simply the greatest doctor that I have ever known.

My deepest condolences for your loss. May he rest in peace.

-- Anonymous


Working with John was a true honor. He and Ruth Farrisey were responsible for the Nurse Practioner role being developed at MGH and I had the privilege of being one of the first Nurses to study in that first fledgling program with Mary Ryan in 1972. I had worked with John as head Nurse in the old Medical Clinic since 1967. We used to laugh about the fact that in every kitchen in the North End there were 3 pictures Jesus , John Kennedy and John Stoeckle. He was very dedicated to his patients and teaching staff. Gosh how much he taught us all.

-- Sharon Mitchell Follayttar


The below is a poem written for John's retirement in 2000. Tribute to a healer: John D. Stoeckle


We seek direction,

Those of us who work as healers,

Signs to point the way,

as we enter into the unknown world of illness and death,

a dire world, rewarding and foreboding,

with exposed emotion, uncertainty,

and sorrow.

We face these challenges alone,

and with each other,

As we deal

with the intense and personal needs of the sick.

We find leaders to help us,

to secure us,

to stabilize us,

to serve us.


John, you were a twentieth century spirit from Michigan.

Rising from the industrial core,

weaned on the work of men and women

who built the prosperity

of America.

You searched for meaning and integration,

the combination of progress and tradition.

In your life, science and technology had bonded with

unspeakable power.

We could, after all, now clear the planet of humanity

with the cloud of a simple fungus.

To your work you brought the determination of Luther,

the will to imprint the world by personal effort.

But beneath the ambition was a deeper core,

an unending will to be a healer.

Your nature was healing,

the touching of each life with science and compassion.

Caring and wanting to care.

Opening and wanting to be open,



Harvard was your crucible,

the forging of true science you now owned

and the opportunity for application.

But your life was halted by your own illness,

the walk with a fatal disease

that you had witnessed at the extreme.

A year away, infused with the fear of unknown outcomes.

You, too, had been a patient.

You trained further,

part of the giddy days of medicine’s explosion.

And you saw the horrible power of science in nuclear fusion.

Returning to your adopted home,

the granite monument on the once meandering estuary,

You briefly considered the specialty niche

offered by your forceful chief.

But you chose differently.

You chose to place your life among the workers.

You chose the uncertainty of practice.


There was fifty years of work, and then some.

Patients to see,

families and relatives

and talk.

Talk, the currency of our work,

so simple, yet so complicated.

You are the master of this, we hear.

The talker who listens to hear,

who hears with compassion,

and then speaks.

It must be the words that make you so good

at reaching into the lives under your care,

words that in their formulation

create the bonds of care,

words that become the connections that heal.

Words now known by what they did,

the health regained,

the courage found,

the sickness settled.

Words too became writing.

The creation of the written record.

Not the patient record,

we know how sparse these were,

but the published record.

The written words became a powerful tool,

a way to stretch your vision outward.

Alone and with others

you created the intellectual base for our work.

We were, after all, doctors for patients,

in their service.

Healers, yes, but workers too,

with tasks that in their fulfillment

dignified us.


We have all learned from you,

from watching and listening and reading.

But your favorite learners, we know, were the students.

Selected by your Harvard,

with powerful brains and great pretensions,

they had little knowledge of the healing arts.

Swollen with youthful pride,

they assumed that the application of science

was an extension of the classroom or lecture hall.

How wrong.

With your gentle insistence

and the assent of your patients,

these doctors to be

learned the uncertainties.

Swept into the flowing waters of your practice,

they floated with you

and learned to survive

by relishing the moments of healing.


How will we carry on?

With difficulty, no doubt.

With courage, certainly.

You have taught this to us,

because like all who heal

you have stood with death and contained your fear.

With ambition, we hope.

You have set a high standard in all domains.

It will be our job to build on what you leave us.

With affection, broadly.

You have been in the corner of our lives forever.

For us, there was no time before you.

With inspiration, endlessly.

Your gentle compassion,

your inquisitive temperament,

your inclusive practice,

your scholarly imperative,

cannot be forgotten.

With appreciation, unspoken.

How could we, after all, find the words or the time

to encompass how much we owe you

for the lives you have inspired us to lead.

John D. Goodson M. D.

June, 2001

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1 Comment

I had the good fortune to have my clinic assignment when I was a Primary Care resident at MGH in the suite with Carol Ehrlich and John Stoeckle. They were both extraordinary influences during my training. After residency I moved to Seattle for my first job at the University of Washington for six years. In 1999 I returned to MGH and asked if my office could be in the suite with Dr. Stoeckle. For the next two years we worked side by side. Even after residency and six years as a clinician I learned much more from him. The best part of my day was the end when sitting at my desk finishing notes I could listen in whi…

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