In life Dr. Christopher Foley a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He regularly cycled, played handball and had a passion for Irish music.
As a physician who trained in internal medicine at the University of Minnesota and became a natural medicine physician, Foley’s “true passion was in taking care of other people,” said his son, Logan.
But through his Vadnais Heights-based practice, Foley also spread falsehoods about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines.
In blog posts over the past year, Foley wrote on his practice’s website that it was dangerous to wear masks and that the drug ivermectin was a proven treatment for COVID-19 — a drug he prescribed to patients, although the Food and Drug Administration warns of it. He posted false claims about the vaccine from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a known vaccine opponent who has been banned from social media platforms.
These widely debunked claims conflict with generally accepted best practices for the treatment and prevention of COVID. But for some who believe them, misinformation has played a role in developing serious illness from the virus, or even death.
So does Foley, who died in October of complications from COVID-19. He was 71. At his funeral, Foley’s son Logan confirmed his father’s death from COVID and that he had not been vaccinated. According to Foley’s death certificate, tobacco use played a role in his death.
It’s not clear whether Foley’s view of the virus and how to treat it harmed his patients. At his funeral, his son claimed his father helped 50 people through COVID infections.
The circumstances of Foley’s life and death reveal a problem that has plagued the medical community during the pandemic: Some licensed practitioners are fueling the spread of COVID, casting doubt on widely accepted research and medical practices, including vaccinations, that have been around for decades. have saved millions of lives.
Doctors can be particularly powerful sources of misinformation, said Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public.
“Vocal opposition is especially damaging when it comes from these medical professionals because we ask the general public when they are hesitant about the vaccine to discuss their concerns with a doctor,” she said.
Patients, she said, trust their doctors with their lives.
“If you can go online and find a medical professional who aligns with your political views on masks or a vaccine mandate, and gives seemingly legitimate medical advice, that will amplify your hesitation about vaccines and it won’t give you the information you need to make the right decision,” she said.
From medical student to naturopathy
Members of Foley’s family and many close colleagues and friends refused to speak to MPR News about this story or call back.
According to his obituary, Foley graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1976 and spent 22 years working for what is now M Health Fairview in internal medicine. He was in good standing with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice until his death with no disciplinary action.
Retired nurse and psychologist Anne Hannahan met Foley in the 1990s when she was approached about opening a wellness center within the HealthEast system.
She and Foley shared a passion for integrative medicine, also known as alternative or natural medicine. It combines medicines, testing and other western approaches to healing with nontraditional approaches such as yoga, acupuncture and meditation.
Hannahan described Foley as ahead of his time.
“Chris was just solid, he was brilliant. He would investigate everything,” she said. “He had a lot of respect for patients and people loved him.”
Foley then opened a similar center on M Health Fairview’s Woodwinds campus in Woodbury.
“He was really trying to help patients do the best he could, in both conventional and integrative medicine,” Hannahan said.
Finally, Foley ended up in private practice in 2001 when he opened Minnesota Natural Medicine. Along with blood pressure tests and custom supplements, he also offered a test that claimed to detect cancer early.
Hannahan said she hasn’t spoken to Foley in over a decade, and was surprised by his views on COVID-19 — views that she’s found to take root in alternative medicine in general.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s hard to be a nurse, psychologist, mother, grandmother and doubly vaxxed.”
Alternative medicine is usually not based on science, said Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, who examines how misinformation about the pandemic has blossomed within the wellness industry.
“We had this tolerance for pseudoscience before the pandemic because many regulators viewed it as somewhat harmless, and not a major health policy issue,” he said. The pandemic has “made room for health approaches that lack a solid, solid scientific basis and can do real harm.”
Caulfield said his research shows that people are often drawn to alternative medicine because they have been laid off by conventional health care providers, who often don’t have much time to help patients with difficult-to-diagnose health conditions.
“Many patients feel that they are not taken seriously, that they are not being listened to. And those who offer alternative medicine often give them that empathy and give them that time,” Caulfield said. “That sounds very positive, but it’s not because they’re really exploiting a real problem with the conventional system.”
‘He made me feel like I was being seen’
Devin Werthhauser, 26, started dating Foley ten years ago for a chronic case of Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that Werthhauser said had long-term neurological problems.
Before finding Foley, Werthauser said she’d seen other doctors who didn’t take her symptoms seriously. Foley, she said, didn’t heal her, but he made her feel like she wasn’t crazy.
“He made me feel like I was seen, he made me feel like I was heard, like I’m not alone, like I’m not going crazy, and hopeful, frankly,” she said, calling him “the best doctor I’ve ever had.”
Werthhauser did not seek COVID advice or care from Foley, but retired physician Robert Geist did.
Geist said he grew up in the same neighborhood as Foley, but didn’t get to know him until they were both adults and meds. Foley had “a moral compass like you can’t believe. The kind of man you want for your doctor.”
Geist said he has been fully vaccinated but at age 93 was concerned about his immune response if he were exposed to the virus.
“I wanted a prophylactic way to deal with it,” Geist said. Foley prescribed ivermectin, a drug to treat parasitic infections, for Geist. “He was very willing to do that. He thought that was a good prophylactic idea.”
The Food and Drug Administration has not approved ivermectin for the treatment of COVID and has warned that ingesting large amounts can be fatal. Most doctors and pharmacists strongly oppose prescribing ivermectin outside of clinical trials. Studies on the effectiveness of ivermectin in treating COVID-19 are mixed at best.
Geist said he and Foley shared the view that drugs to treat COVID-19 have been rejected too quickly by the government and the medical establishment.
It’s a topic, Geist said, that he and Foley often discuss with a like-minded group of doctors and others who think COVID-19 isn’t as serious as it’s claimed.
Geist points to malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine, a drug found in clinical trials to have little benefit for COVID patients, as another example.
“The problem with those drugs is that they’re politically incorrect because Donald Trump said we should try something,” Geist said.
“Would he still be here?”
Geist said he was surprised by Foley’s death. Like others, he described Foley as a healthy eater who was physically active. Still, because of his age, Geist would have advised Foley to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Geist said he didn’t know Foley had died of COVID-19 until his son, Logan, announced it at his funeral. Foley’s obituary stated that he died of an unexpected illness.
“He died of complications from COVID. Has he been vaccinated? No, he wasn’t,” Logan said. ‘If only he had been vaccinated, wouldn’t he still be here? We’ll never know, of course.”
It is likely that Foley would still be alive if he had been vaccinated. There is some evidence that vaccines offer strong protection against death, and most deaths now belong to the unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the funeral, Logan suggested that following the medical establishment for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 would have been a betrayal of his father’s medical values, values based on freedom and individual choice in medicine.
“My father had a deep sense of love for this country, and the foundation of American freedom that makes it great. Individual freedoms run through his veins, especially when it comes to healthcare,” said Logan. “He sought to provide his patients with information and equip them with knowledge that would enable them to make their own decisions about their health.”
Logan said the last time he spoke to his father, he was already in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.
“He said, ‘Hey, look, I love you,'” Logan said.
Logan replied, “Yeah, I love you too, man. I’ll see you when you get out of there.”
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