A Scottsdale physician who died after a Montana kayaking accident was remembered on Wednesday by former co-workers and patients as a caring doctor who befriended and helped hundreds of people during his lifetime. 

The body of Thomas Michael Bajo, who would have turned 68 on Wednesday, was found submerged in the waters of Rock Creek in Montana on Tuesday after his kayak hit a rock in the river and overturned on Monday afternoon, according to Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan.

The person who had been kayaking with Bajo and called police said he last saw an unresponsive Bajo floating downstream, McQuillan said.

Several agencies responded and began a search that was suspended at sundown andresumed Tuesday morning before Bajo’s body was recovered at 7:15 a.m., McQuillan said.

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Bajo was wearing a helmet, dry suit and life jacket at the time and had more than 20 years of kayaking experience, McQuillan said.

He had retired from his job as a critical-care physician for Banner Health in Phoenix in 2015 after working there for 30 years, Banner officials said.

“Dr. Bajo cared for our most seriously ill patients, as well as giving his time to educate new physicians in training,” said Banner Health spokesman David Lozano, in a prepared statement.

 “Our physician residents tell us that he played a pivotal role in their medical careers and was instrumental in helping them become the physicians they are today.”

‘A vision of commitment and caring’

One of those physicians was Dr. Robert Raschke, a critical-care doctor at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix, who said Bajo trained him in the mid-1980s when he started at the facility as a medical student.

Raschke said he became friends with Bajo and that the two often went mountain biking or kayaking together.

“He cared more about his patients and their families than anybody,” Raschke said. “Everyone was shocked when he would be on vacation somewhere at 3 o’ clock in the morning and call in to check on a patient.” 

Raschke said that it wasn’t unusual for Bajo to be consoling a family who had lost a loved one even hours after his shift had ended.

“He gave us all a vision of commitment and caring that no one had ever really seen before,” Raschke said.

‘So much room in his heart’

Lindsey Medeiros, an intensive-care nurse who started working with Bajo in 2009, said he would call her every day to check on her after she took another job.

Medeiros said she hadn’t known that Bajo did similar things for hundreds of other people during his lifetime until he died.

“It’s only now in postmortem that I’m finding out this man carved out a little piece of his heart for all those people,” Medeiros said.

“He legitimately had so much room in his heart for all these people. He cared about each one of us in a separate and important way.”

Medeiros said Bajo made a lasting impact at the facility and in the hearts of all of those who knew him.

“It’s not just about the fact that he was an amazing doctor, but he was an amazing human that can never, ever be replaced,” Medeiros said. 

Medeiros said one of Bajo’s mottos was “carpe diem,” a Latin phrase that encourages people to make the most of the current moment.

“That’s the legacy we’ll carry on, is for us to continue to seize the day and ‘carpe diem’ always,” Medeiros said.

Raschke said he finds some solace in knowing that Bajo died doing something he loved, and that “so many people are trying to live up to the standard he set.”

“It’s not just because somebody died and we want to say nice things,” Raschke said. “He was truly unique. None of us had ever met anyone like him and no one ever had that much influence. The people with the highest titles and accolades, they could never come close to the influence he had.”

Bajo was ‘Patch Adams’

Jeffrey Lewis, 63, was a patient of Bajo 12 years ago and saw him daily for the four months he was in intensive care.

Lewis is a quadruple amputee, and it was Bajo who ultimately made the decision to remove his limbs and save his life.

Lewis said it was a “kick in the gut” to hear about Bajo’s death.

“We lost a good friend,” he said, referring to himself and his wife. “Dr. Bajo was doing what he loved to do and he had a tragic accident.”

Lewis described Bajo as the “Patch Adams” of doctors in that he truly cared about his patients beyond their medical situation. Bajo knew his patients on a personal level.

“He was just open, friendly and didn’t act like he was a doctor when he talked to you,” according to Lewis. “He knew I liked to play golf and smoke a cigar once in a while.”

Since his hospital days, Lewis and his wife always made it a point to visit Bajo if he was available. They had even made plans to get together once Bajo returned from his recent trip. 

Perhaps his most memorable moment with Bajo was on the day he left the hospital.

It was an emotional day for both of them, Lewis said. Bajo came to visit him and they talked a little before Bajo gave him a hug.

According to Lewis, Bajo was too emotional to speak after the hug, so he slapped Lewis on the stomach so hard that it left a pink mark for a week.

“I was so proud of that handprint,” Lewis remembered.


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