Foley was a ‘pioneer in pediatric thyroid disease’

Thomas P. Foley Jr., professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at UPMC Children's Hospital, died Jan. 17, 2021, after a life memorialized by his department for an “amazing legacy” that has “touched and continues to impact the lives of millions of children.”

Foley, the former director of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at the hospital and president of the Pediatric Endocrine Society, was “a giant in the field of pediatric endocrinology and a pioneer in pediatric thyroid disease,” his colleagues noted.

He developed the TSH filter paper assay to screen newborns for congenital hypothyroidism (a lack of thyroid hormone, which stymies brain development) and took the screening first statewide, then across the country and around the world. His expertise helped test and treat many individuals in the areas surrounding both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents. He also created critical medical testing, treatment and education programs in European countries, including Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.

Pediatric endocrinology faculty member Basil Zitelli arrived at Pitt in 1978 and worked most extensively with Foley in the late 1980s, when the pair were involved in Project Hope, a medical ship delivering care on board and, eventually, in hospitals, including one in Krakow, Poland. There, Zitelli worked with Foley to teach thyroid screening and treatments, and to devise a new continuing medical education program.

When Foley was recruited after a sharp increase in thyroid cancer was observed in children surrounding the Chernobyl accident in 1986, he organized a program headquartered in Minsk, the Belarus capital, to teach newborn screening and to test for and teach about detecting thyroid cancers. He and Zitelli also worked to establish a U.S.-model medical-school curriculum there, as well as poison control centers.

“He was instrumental in establishing research materials and helping them to establish research programs,” Zitelli said. “He really was an amazing person to establish all of this.

“He was brilliant,” Zitelli added. “He was a superb clinician as well as a superb researcher. He was one of the kindest persons I knew. I think anybody who got to know him has benefited from his wonderful expertise and kindness.”

Nurses who worked with Foley recalled his care for patients and his attention to the opinions of all of his colleagues.

Kathy Brown, a recently retired diabetes research study coordinator for Pitt and Children’s Hospital, remembered Foley as “a very smart physician (who) remembered always the personal side of what families were going through. He was a great teacher making the complicated endocrine system much easier to learn and understand for a very young nurse. He was also always kind and respectful ... He always made me feel like a valued part of the team.”

Tammy Nenadovich started as an RN in Children’s Hospital’s inpatient endocrine and metabolic unit in 1983. Eight years later, she was working midnight shifts when Foley called her at 1 a.m. She feared the worst — why would a division chief need to be calling at this hour? — but Foley had just gotten settled at home after attending the opera and wanted to alert her to a job opening. He met her the next morning at 7:30, when she got off her shift, and she applied and got the position.

“He was always focused on the work and his patients,” Nenadovich said. “He was wonderful to work for. Dr. Foley always respected the nurses’ opinions about patients. He wanted us all involved in the care of the patients. I’ve heard him described as the gentle giant and that’s truly how he was with the patients. He was very caring, and he listened well and he always had great follow-up.”

Another of Foley’s faculty colleagues, Dorothy Becker, arrived at Pitt as a fellow in 1974, when Foley was already working with physicians around the county and Canada to institute his hypothyroidism screening method. Becker has kept in contact with one of the first people to benefit from Foley’s efforts as an infant. “She’s a perfectly normal mother now who has had perfectly normal babies,” Becker said. “That was a real breakthrough in the world.

“He didn’t always focus on thyroid, he focused on the health of people,” she added, noting that he also ran a growth hormone program in Pittsburgh, working with pharmaceutical companies to establish treatment regimens and assessments of effectiveness.

Foley was well known for his mentorship of trainees and fellows. “I was one of them,” she said. “He was really a great teacher. He loved to teach. He loved to start research projects with the fellows. He was an incredibly good mentor.”

She recalls not only his impact as a physician but how personable and enthusiastic he could be. Within two weeks of her arrival on Pitt’s campus from South Africa, she recalled, “he had taken me with him to listen to his bluegrass at a bar in East Liberty.” She had never heard of bluegrass before.

Although born in Indianapolis, he was raised in Richmond, Va., and a piece of the South stuck with him through life, his colleagues recalled. He was a dedicated bluegrass guitarist, and led The Allegheny River Boys for many years. The group performed and recorded beginning in the 1970s.

Born on July 31, 1937, Foley received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University in 1959 and his Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Virginia in 1963. He began his post-graduate work at the University of Kansas, in the Children's Hospital in Cincinnati, and completed his fellowship in 1971 at Johns Hopkins University.

He also served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force at the McCoy Air Force Base Hospital (1966-1968).

His numerous research studies resulted in more than 250 published articles. He was named professor emeritus and received the Chancellor's Distinguished Public Service Award from Pitt.

He is survived by his wife, Charlet Cullen Foley; children W. Cullen Van Brunt (Laura-Lee), Teran Milligan (Ian) and Thomas W. Foley (Christina) and 10 grandchildren.

A future celebration service is planned for this summer in Pittsburgh, pending COVID-19 restrictions.

Memorial donations are suggested to the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology for Education of Endocrine Fellows at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation, 4401 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15224, or the Discovery Space of Central PA, fostering childhood STEM education, 1224 N. Atherton St., State College, PA 16803.