Last fall, Dr. Thomas Stillwell put in notice of his retirement from Minnesota Urology. He planned to fully retire in two years but in the meantime ramp down his practice in the Twin Cities, opting to focus instead on the work that earned him the moniker “The Flying Doctor.”
For more than two decades, Stillwell combined his love for patients with his passion for logging hours in the sky, flying to rural clinics in outstate Minnesota communities including Mora, Onamia, Moose Lake and Sandstone.
Stillwell, of Plymouth, was killed May 8 when the single-engine airplane he was flying back to the Twin Cities crashed near Moose Lake. He was 65.
“He absolutely loved the human connection of practicing medicine,” said his daughter Kate of Oakland, Calif. “Just like he did with his family, he made his patients feel that they were the only thing he wanted to pay attention to. We just keep hearing that over and over again.”
Stillwell, who grew up in Kohler, Wis., dreamed of becoming a doctor from the time he was a child — a goal that drove him to apply to medical school three times before he was accepted.
“He was undeterred,” Kate Stillwell said. “That word could apply to most things in his life.”
He met his future wife, Virginia, when she was the new student at Kohler High School; they were married in 1974. To help pay for his schooling, Stillwell joined the U.S. Navy in 1978. After completing his residency at the Mayo Clinic, he joined the faculty at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Stillwell served in the Gulf War in 1990-91, working as a flight surgeon and then with a mobile surgical hospital where he treated U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers. After his service was complete, the family moved back to Minnesota.
“He loved the weather, including the winter,” Kate Stillwell said. “You could not get him indoors for more than five minutes for most of the year.”
An avid outdoorsman, Stillwell enjoyed hiking, cross-country skiing and biking and had recently taken up woodworking. Each summer, he grew three large beds of tomatoes and spent weekends and evenings tending to them. Come late summer, he’d fill jars with his special-recipe salsa.
Some of Stillwell’s first drawings as a child were of birds, and his favorite way to enjoy nature was from a bird’s-eye view. He received his private pilot’s license in 1994 and was a member of Club Cherokee, a flying club based at the Crystal Airport. As a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, Stillwell organized “fly-ins” that took military veterans to local historical sites.
For several years, Stillwell traveled to Guatemala to offer pro bono medical services.
“He was such a quiet and shy man, but his actions and how he spent his life spoke absolute volumes about his character,” said Dr. Dean Tortorelis, who worked with Stillwell and credits him with sparking his own interest in urology when he was a resident in the mid-1990s.
Years ago, after Stillwell broke both his legs in a race car crash, Tortorelis asked if he planned to slow down.
“He said, ‘Dean, I don’t want to be sitting in a wheelchair in my 80s wishing I would have done this or that,’ ” Tortorelis remembered. “As a surgeon, he understood that every day could be his last, so there was no woulda, shoulda, coulda for him. He just went out and lived to the fullest.”
Besides his wife and daughter Kate, Stillwell is survived by daughters Lillian Ryser of Basel, Switzerland, and Madeline of Berlin; a son, John of Iowa City; his mother, Adele, of Nashville; brothers the Rev. Gary Stillwell of Janesville, Wis., and Dr. Scott Stillwell of Green Bay, Wis.; sisters Barbara Strawn of Sheboygan, Wis., and Nancy Stillwell-Duckett of Nashville; and six grandchildren. Services have been held.