Profile in Passion: Tammy Teller, MD – On Breaking the Cycle & Living Out Loud

by Jane Devin on 08/08/2008

In 1968, a teenage girl in California, a middle child from a family of nine, had a daughter. She named her Tammy, after a popular song called “Tammy’s in Love”.

Tammy Teller grew up in a working class neighborhood, with a family prone to fist fighting in bars, and not inclined towards academics or corporate ladders. Her mother and father divorced when she was two, and Teller didn’t meet her father again until she was sixteen.

“We are like fraternal twins, so similar, that it’s scary,” Teller says of her absentee father. “He’s more like a big brother, but not father material.”

Her mother remarried several times, and Teller recalls most of her childhood being spent in a “circus of divorce, beatings, boyfriends, and threatening bill collectors.”

Although she was academically gifted, school was particularly rough on Teller. “I was placed in the MGM (mentally-gifted minors) program and they segregated us in 4th grade, which is the year my mother got divorced for the second time and everything was hell — I mean, we had knives and guns being drawn in the kitchen and I was supposed to be learning Spanish. I dropped out of it because I felt like I couldn’t keep up or handle the teasing I endured from my friends for being ‘conceited’. I refused to go unless my mom put me in a regular class. For the longest time I was terrified when people said I was smart — like they’d find out I was a fraud sooner or later.”

Teller’s feelings of being something of an outsider both at home and school manifested in disruptive classroom behavior, fighting, and truancy. She dropped out in her senior year, and received her high school diploma through alternative school.

“I knew I didn’t want to grow up to be like my family. I knew I was different. I didn’t just want a job with benefits, and a tract home in the suburbs. I had passion; I wanted to see the world, to study, to be in control of my own life. I was obsessed with kids on the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and the boy with leukemia in Something for Joey. Yet any time I said I wanted to be a doctor I got that Oh sure, uh-huh response. I can’t count the times my mother said ‘you aren’t going to change the world, little girl’. When I was in college one of my uncles berated me for wanting to be ‘some corporate bitch’ who thought she was ‘too good for where she came from’. My vision was just not part of their world-view.”

Despite a lack of encouragement from her family, Teller waitressed her way through college, graduating with a B.A. in psychology from Pitzer College. Afterwards, she attended Bryn Mawr, and then transferred to the University of Vermont – Burlington, where she graduated with honors as an M.D. in 2003.

Her graduation was bittersweet. The night before, after a heated argument which pitted a daughter’s need for understanding against a mother’s denial, Teller’s mother flew back to California, missing her graduation. The pain of that fight, and all the years preceding it, is still unsettled. “She’s my biggest cheerleader now,” says Teller, “but really not so much a mother still, you know? It hurts my heart to say it, but it’s true.”

Teller’s lifelong empathy for children led to a residency in pediatrics, then anesthesiology. She is now in the final days of her formal training as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of NY Presbyterian, NYC, after which she will transfer to private practice in Philadelphia, along with her partner of thirteen years, Grace, who is a pediatric nurse.

From a child living in violence, to a doctor that specializes in preventing and relieving children’s pain, Teller not only broke a cycle, but used her past experiences to fuel her passion for a personal happiness, professional integrity, just causes, and a supportive circle of family and friends. She delights in old R&B music, photography, baking from scratch, roasting her own coffee beans, and spending time with her partner and their young niece, Morgan. She and Grace have volunteered their skills for a clinic in Ecuador, and are considering adopting children one day.

In her own words:

As a young girl, I remember knowing, not just thinking, but knowing I would grow up to be and do whatever I wanted to do – call it vision, call it whatever fits, but it’s always been there without question. My life circumstances told me otherwise –- but I wanted to be a doctor, a painter, a judge, an entrepreneur, a crusader for all the world’s sick and injured children, a professional athlete — I just wanted to do it all. Yet, I was the daughter of an eighteen-year-old girl who dropped out of high school to have me, who would never have had an abortion even if it had been legal, whose entire family told her adoption was better for all involved, and who was left to raise me alone by her young husband.

My mother might have been literally correct that I couldn’t change the world, but I’ve no doubt changed my own world and hers with it –- I moved 3000 miles from home, came out as a lesbian, and was the first in my family to finish college (my half-sister was the second), and the only one to go to any kind of graduate school. And though my professional pursuits have given me enormous opportunities and access to places I would not have known otherwise, they are, nevertheless, the stuff that “looks great on paper” or on Lifetime TV.

What really matters, what I am most proud of and at peace with, is that I was driven to be my true self no matter who I turned out to be. My family, now, is very proud to have one of their own who’s a doctor, and while I am deeply grateful for my experience taking care of sick people and the skills I’ve gained to help them, there’s more to it than that. I am not content with getting to this point and staying in one place. I might know how to save the life of a sick child, but there are those who don’t make it to medical treatment, and there are abuses in every corner of the world. There’s a democracy that gave me every opportunity to succeed that’s being frayed at it’s core, and there are cakes to bake, and faces to photograph. There’s so much more to see and do

Was I “too much”? Yes Since I was a child, I’ve been too much of something: too sassy, too talkative, too hyper, too tomboy, too smart for my own good. . .

The funny thing is, I never really saw any of these as being negative! I also don’t think boys were ever called too much of anything, they were supposed to be unruly, weren’t they? And, even, as an adult, I’m mostly considered too crass which, when I look at what it really means, doesn’t bother me either. Crass: so crude and unrefined as to be lacking in discrimination and sensibility. Now, I’ll take issue with lacking sensibility, but what people mean when they call me crass is biting, cutting, insulting, and insensitive. I’ve asked them, so I know. So then, if I look at crude meaning raw, lacking subtlety, offensive, blunt – I find some truth in what they say, and I’m still not really offended.

I’ll admit to being unrefined in my social graces as a young adult trying to traverse socioeconomic classes, and trying to create relationships not built on dependence and angst, and generally trying to figure out who I was as defined by me, not by anyone else. So, yeah, I was raw, unrefined, and rough around the edges. I don’t feel bad about that.

As for being somewhat cutting – I’ll own that, too. I like to think of being cutting as coming from a way of seeing things as they really are and not being afraid to say it, with a dash of sarcastic humor for good measure. Raw, not subtle. Good, I like it! I’ll take it over mild, wishy-washy, and sugar-coated until my last breath.

Last week I was talking with a colleague about taking an extremely disabled child who was scheduled for a ‘palliative’ procedure that required general anesthesia. Do the parents realize the child might die having it done, I asked. She wasn’t sure. A young trainee then asked what the point was – I replied that, really, it was an attempt to make it easier for the caretakers to look at the child, he was never, going to get up out of that bed and play soccer.

There was some nervous laughter, and then, one of the more seasoned physicians in the room said, you’re right, Teller, you’re absolutely right.

That same doctor later went on about 3 criteria for explaining anything. Is it nice, is it true, is it necessary?

I told her I thought that was bull. Nice is not always necessary, nor is it necessarily true What’s the motive? That’s the criteria I care about – and it’s not meant to be mean, but to be honest, true. If it sometimes requires shining a spotlight on the ridiculous and calling it out – so be it.

Whatever my passion is, I consider that at its core, is a fundamental belief in my own life force –- that I am here to do whatever good I can offer, that I came to live out loud, and that whatever ability I have to see the truth, and beauty, and even the ugly parts of life cannot be ignored or silenced –- otherwise why be here at all?

Determined to rise above her early circumstances and control her own destiny, Tammy Teller turned chaos and pain into reasons to live the best life possible. She’s living that life out loud, honestly, and with passion to spare.


1 Gia August 8, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Another wonderfully, passionate woman!!! I love it! Tammy (or should I say Dr. Teller?) sounds like an amazing person! Thank you Jane for sharing her and her story with us!!!!

You are inspiring me!!! It feels great!!!! I wish you’d continue to share a passionate woman with us at least once a month after this series is over!

2 Ann Parker August 9, 2008 at 10:31 am

Bravo, Dr. Teller!

3 Maria August 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Wow…truly an amazing, passionate woman! Such an inspiring story! Thanks Jane SO MUCH for sharing the stories of these phenomenal women!

4 kris August 9, 2008 at 1:37 pm

right on, Dr. Teller! we need more people willing to call out the ridiculous!

your accomplishments are, as one scrappy kid to another, beyond inspirational. and in a weird way….makes me feel proud.

5 Pamela August 9, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Dr. Teller is a definite inspiration! Medical school is expensive and exhausting from what I understand. To do this without familial support is pretty amazing! Bravo for that and all the work she does!

Thanks for another great story, Jane!

6 LBJ August 9, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Kris, I don’t think feeling proud of Tammy Teller is at all weird! I feel it too, so it must not be right? :-)

Everybody here knows I work with girls who have gotten into trouble with the system. Stories like Tammy’s are ones I want to print out and pass around, saying “look, you CAN have the life you want!” SO many of them just feel a sense of hopelessness and don’t see the future because they’re so wrapped up in the past and present.

So, I feel PROUD , YES! That one of the girls who could have been lost was not, and that she found the strength to carry on and live her dreams even if all by herself.

I echo the other’s thoughts Jane, but thanks for this series. Very inspiring!

7 Gia August 9, 2008 at 10:51 pm

My son’s pediatrician has an amazing story too. Not sure what her childhood was like, but she left an abusive husband, moved into a mobile home with her 2 sons. Was a waitress while she put herself through medical school. Finally received her degree when she was in her mid 30′s. When I heard her story I said, “I want this woman as our doctor!” I saw her passion and her spark and hell, I’m proud of her too.

Again I say, Jane…loving this series!!! You are awesome!!! (And I see that passion and spark in you too!)

8 Barbara August 10, 2008 at 7:16 am

Nice, true and necessary? You’re right, Dr. Teller. That’s not the criteria I’d want my child’s doctor (or my own) to use when explaining procedures to me. I’d rather hear the whole truth, whether it was nice or necessary.

Jane had an article up not too long ago about the dropout rates of gifted kids, and I think it’s something a whole lot of people don’t get. They assume dropouts are dumb or delinquent. My middle son dropped out of regular school in 9th grade, due to depression. The bullying, the boredom, and the groups wore him down. He got a G.E.D. when he was 16 and went on to college, where he was a 4.0 student. Now, eleven years later, he’s a television engineer, and very happy.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about him during those years, and we fought alot, but in the end I couldn’t force him to attend, especially not at the expense of his health or happiness.

I hope you continue to inspire kids who are like you were, and to offer hope and understanding to their parents.

9 Lonnie August 10, 2008 at 8:57 am

Fantastic story! Great idea for a series, Jane! Bravo to Dr. Teller!

10 Donna August 10, 2008 at 10:10 am

Way to go Dr Teller…your authenticity is wonderful. To strive for more in your life and to not worry about the disassociation it would cause with your family is breathtaking. As I like to tell my young adult children, you make your life, life doesnt make you! Congratulations on all your success! Jane, thanks for a wonderful series, so many powerful woman!

11 Kate McLaughlin August 10, 2008 at 1:07 pm

Revealing and inspiring profile, Jane. And as usual your writing flows beautifully.

Like many of your devotees, I personally connect with Dr. Teller’s story, having been repeatedly told by my parents that I was “too big for my britches” and even that Mark, my lifelong love, was “way too good” for me. Guns out the front window at night to get rid of the “wetbacks” were not uncommon. Black eyes, belt welts and broken bones were ours. I relate.

I rebelled. I overcame. I am happy. I am “good.”

On another note, I’ve recently felt restless and frustrated by mainstream media’s focus on a few when this vast world teems with brilliance and accomplishment in so many arenas.

Thanks to you and other new media notables, we have quality alternatives. I feel a sea change and you are at the crest. I’m ready to dive into the flow!

12 linda woods August 10, 2008 at 3:30 pm

Tammy’s passion, determination, and perseverance are inspiring! And, it looks like she’s pretty damn good at cake decorating, too! ;)
Thanks for sharing her story with us!

13 Donna L. Faber August 10, 2008 at 4:48 pm

I loved this one, too, Jane. I think it’s fascinating. I know how easy it is to see our capabilities and potential (or lack of) reflected in the eyes others, how that is a trap. And I wonder if those of us knowing our potential right from the start, despite these things, aren’t just a little closer to the divinity in their certainty.


14 kris August 12, 2008 at 4:44 pm

i just came across this and thought i’d share….

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

15 Julia August 12, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Reading this reminded me that all through elementary school every report card I had said, “Talks TOO much!” on it. Funny how that was deemed a negative behavior and then I ended up in a career where I talked with people.

This article reminds me of a quote by Theodore Giesel (Dr. Seuss) “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Jane.. thank you for this wonderful article and the affirmation that being too much can be a wonderful thing. Bravo to Tammy for being who she is!

16 Kirsten and Dawn August 30, 2008 at 9:14 pm

We love you and are so proud!!!!

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