In 2014, the John William Pope Foundation was honored to give $1.3 million to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the leading cancer centers in the United States. $1 million of the gift went to fund a distinguished professorship in cancer research in honor of Dr. Thomas Shea, who was John W. Pope’s physician while he was a patient at UNC Lineberger. In addition to seeing patients and conducting research, Dr. Shea also serves as Director of the UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplantation Program and UNC Lineberger Associate Director of Clinical Outreach.
“I am humbled that the Pope family chose to make such a significant gift in my honor,” Shea said. “A new professorship provides critical support for our faculty and lays the groundwork for important next steps in our transplant and blood cancer research initiatives.”
UNC Lineberger brings together exceptional physicians and scientists from across the country to investigate and improve the prevention, early detection and treatment of cancer.
Called to Medicine
Dr. Shea was born in Philadelphia. At the age of five, his family moved to Long Island in the suburbs of New York City, where he spent most of his years growing up. While in college, he realized that he was called to practice medicine.
“Medicine was a good combination of my skill sets; one that I could use to help people,” he said. “That was always an important part of how I tried to live my life. Some of that was leftover from my high school days, where service and mission were such important parts of the Jesuit teachings at my school.”
A Harrowing Experience
That sense of service led Dr. Shea to a harrowing and formative experience early in his medical career.
Then a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s medical school, Dr. Shea was working as a staff physician at a rural hospital in Nicaragua’s coastal region, splitting his time between the hospital and running a network of smaller clinics up and down the Caribbean coast.
When rebel fighters toppled the existing Nicaraguan regime and took power, Dr. Shea barely escaped the country before the airports closed down.
“It was a bit of a surprise when the fighting started in earnest, since the part of the country I was in was pretty quiet and isolated from the politics of the revolution,” Dr. Shea said. When two Peace Corps workers in Managua were taken hostage and eventually killed, I realized it was time to leave.”
Although his stint in Nicaragua wasn’t what he expected, Dr. Shea’s experience working in a developing country taught him the need for a robust medical and public health infrastructure to ensure quality medical care and overall health of a country’s population. It was a lesson he would use many times during his medical career back home.
After returning to the United States, Dr. Shea completed his fellowship in hematology and oncology at Harvard Medical School followed by a position at the University of California at San Diego where he started their transplant program in 1988. By 1992, he had come full circle in his medical career and returned to Chapel Hill to establish the bone marrow and stem cell transplantation program at UNC.
At UNC Lineberger, in addition to his work in marrow and stem cell transplantation, Dr. Shea leads an effort focused on connecting health care providers across North Carolina, enabling them to share cutting edge research and best practices for patient care. His team has developed a statewide network of community-based hematologists and oncologists to collaborate in testing novel therapeutics through clinical trials.
At this point in his career, Dr. Shea is mainly concerned with helping others grow in their roles. He wants his legacy to be making the bone marrow transplant and hematologic malignancy programs “as absolutely good as they can be.”
“For me, it’s always been about patient care,” he said. “The individual relationships that develop have always been central to me. In cancer care, sometimes the treatments work and sometimes they don’t, but it’s important to remember that it’s the little things that make the difference in how a patient or their family remember their story.”
To learn more about the John William Pope Foundation’s support for organizations like UNC Lineberger, click here.