Updated Nov. 19, 9 a.m. | Posted Nov. 10, 4 a.m.
In life, Dr. Christopher Foley was a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He cycled regularly, 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 doctor, Foley’s “passion lay truly 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 against COVID-19 — a drug he prescribed for patients even though the Food and Drug Administration warns against it. He reposted false claims about the vaccine made by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known opponent of vaccines who has been banned from social media platforms.
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These widely debunked claims run contrary to widely held best practices for treating and preventing COVID. But for some who believe them, misinformation has played a role in developing severe illness from the virus, or even dying.
That includes 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 was unvaccinated.
It’s not clear whether Foley’s views on 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's vexed the medical profession throughout the pandemic: some licensed practitioners are fueling COVID's spread, seeding doubts about widely accepted research and medical practices, including vaccinations, that have been saving millions of lives for decades.
Doctors can be particularly potent sources of misinformation, said Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral scholar 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're feeling hesitant about the vaccine to go and 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 viewpoints about masks or a vaccine mandate, and offers up seemingly legitimate medical advice, that's going to cement your vaccine hesitancy and it’s not going to provide you with the information that you need to make a sound decision,” she said.
From medical student to natural medicine
Members of Foley’s family and many close colleagues and friends either declined to speak with MPR News for this story or didn’t return calls.
According to his obituary, Foley graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1976, and worked for what is now M Health Fairview for 22 years in internal medicine. He was in good standing with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice until his death, with no record of 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, which is also called alternative or natural medicine. It combines pharmaceuticals, 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 research everything,” she said. “He was very respectful to patients, and people loved him.”
Foley went on to open a similar center at M Health Fairview’s Woodwinds campus in Woodbury.
“He was really trying to help patients do the best he knew how in both conventional and integrative medicine,” said Hannahan.
Eventually, Foley landed in private practice in 2001 when he opened Minnesota Natural Medicine. Along with blood pressure tests and customized supplements, he also offered a test that purported to detect cancer early.
Hannahan said she hasn’t spoken to Foley in well over a decade, and was surprised by his views on COVID-19 — views she’s noticed take root in alternative medicine in general.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s hard to, being a nurse, a psychologist, a mother, a grandmother, and being double vaxxed.”
Alternative medicine typically isn’t based in science, said Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, who studies how misinformation about the pandemic has flourished within the wellness industry.
“We had this tolerance of pseudoscience before the pandemic, because many regulators viewed it as somewhat harmless, and not a major issue with respect to health policy,” he said. The pandemic has “made room for health approaches that don't have 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’ve been dismissed by conventional health care practitioners, who often don’t have a lot of time to help patients with difficult-to-diagnose health issues.
“Many patients feel like they're not being taken seriously, that they haven't been listened to. And those who are providing alternative medicine often give them that empathy and give them that time,” Caulfield said. “That sounds very positive, but it's not because what they're really doing is exploiting a genuine problem with the conventional system.”
‘He made me feel seen’
Devin Werthhauser, 26, started seeing Foley a decade ago for a chronic case of Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that Werthhauser said left her with long-term neurological issues.
Before she found Foley, Werthauser said she saw other doctors who didn’t take her symptoms seriously. Foley, she said, didn’t cure her but he did make her feel like she wasn’t crazy.
“He made me feel seen, he made me feel heard, like I'm not alone, like I'm not going crazy, and hopeful, honestly,” she said, calling him “the best doctor I've ever had.”
Werthhauser didn’t 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 practicing medicine. Foley had “a moral compass like you can't believe. The kind of guy you want for your doctor.”
Geist said he’s fully vaccinated, but at 93, worried about his immune response if he was exposed to the virus.
“I was anxious to have a prophylactic way of dealing 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 to treat COVID and has warned that taking it in large quantities can have deadly consequences. Most doctors and pharmacists strongly oppose prescribing ivermectin outside clinical trials. Studies about ivermectin’s effectiveness in treating COVID-19 are mixed at best.
Geist said he and Foley shared the view that drugs to treat COVID-19 have been too quickly dismissed by the government and the medical establishment.
It’s a topic, Geist said, that he and Foley would frequently discuss with a like-minded group of doctors and others who think COVID-19 isn’t as serious as it’s been made out to be.
Geist points to malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has been found in clinical trials to have little benefit for COVID patients, as another example.
“The problem with those drugs is they're politically incorrect because Donald Trump said we ought to 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 wasn’t aware Foley had died of COVID-19 until his son, Logan, announced it at his funeral. Foley’s obituary stated he died of an unexpected illness.
“He died of complications from COVID. Was he vaccinated? No, he wasn't,” Logan said. “If he’d only been vaccinated, wouldn't he still be here? Obviously, we'll never know.”
It’s likely Foley would be alive if he’d been vaccinated. Evidence shows vaccines provide strong protection against death, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most deaths are now among the unvaccinated.
At the funeral, Logan suggested that following the medical establishment on treating and preventing COVID-19 would have been a betrayal to his father’s medical values, values based on freedom and individual choices in medicine.
“My dad had a deep sense of love for this country, and the bedrock of American freedom that makes her great. Individual liberties course through his veins, especially when it came to health care,” Logan said. “He sought to empower his patients with information and equip them with knowledge that would empower them to make their own decisions about their health.”
Logan said that 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 responded: “Yeah, I love you, too, man. I'll see you when you get out of there.”
Editor's note (Nov. 19, 2021): Foley’s original death certificate said tobacco use played a role in his death. Foley's physician now says she mistakenly reported that he used tobacco when he did not. A reference to tobacco use has been removed from the story, along with a link to Foley's original death certificate.