Obituary: Dr David John Foley – Dr Owen Lewis

Dr Foley went to be with the Lord on 13/7/2021 aged 89

13 MINUTE READ

From Luke’s Journal Timeless Articles

UK 1932 – 1959
Geelong 1960 – 1963
PNG 1963 1971
Mt Gambier 1971 1999
Adelaide 2000 2021

John graduated in medicine from Bristol, UK in 1955 and gained a DA in anaesthesia in 1959.

He moved to Geelong, Victoria with his wife Betty, and was elevated from Senior Medical Officer to Medical Superintendent during the 3 years at the Geelong and District Hospital (now the University Hospital, Geelong). In 1963 he resigned to move to Papua New Guinea. John was primarily an Australian Government doctor at the Port Moresby General Hospital from 1963 to 1971 and would relieve missionary doctors in the highlands during his annual leave. He was instrumental in commencing the training of anaesthetic assistants using appropriate technology for under-resourced settings.

Dr Ken Clezy, a surgeon who worked with John in PNG and who attended the same church in recent years writes:
“John arrived at the Port Moresby General Hospital to find no other person with a DA, and anything up to six theatres being served by general duties medical officers, some with little interest in anaesthesia. He soon realised that staff, other than doctors, could be taught and would take pride in doing a good job. The idea was resisted on spurious legal grounds but he wasn’t deterred. That his idea proved so successful meant that the whole country was (and is) better off than anyone could have imagined.”

John and Betty soon became valued members of the Port Moresby Christian community and made life-long friendships. The grace of God in them both was a challenge and an example, with an eternal value that is incalculable.

From John’s writing, shared by Lyn Foley:

“I felt that my major contribution has been the development of the anaesthetic assistant course and the development of an Intensive Care Unit where we could concentrate on serious cases.”

“We saw many patients suffering from snake-bite, commonly the Papuan Black Snake. The usual effect was about five days of paralysis, needing artificial ventilation. For this, they had a tracheotomy, and relays of students manually ventilated them until the paralysis was reversed. I became involved in their management and was eventually able to persuade the Department of Public Health to buy a Bird Mark IV ventilator. I demonstrated this to a medical meeting explaining its purpose. However, its first use was on the 5 year old son of one of the expatriate doctors, who had a crushed chest from being run over by a grader. David Bowler, the paediatrician, was the only other doctor in the country who had experience of the Bird, so together we cared for this child during several days of ventilation, until he could manage on his own. It was the only time I ever slept in the hospital. In 2007, I met the child’s father and learnt he was well and working in Melbourne. “ 

“It was a very busy time, running anaesthetics for a 400 bed hospital, with limited assistance. Besides this I taught medical students some pharmacology and was involved in the setting up of the Medical Society with its journal. “

From 1971, John spent most of his career as a GP anaesthetist in Mt Gambier, South Australia, raising four children with Betty, who died in a car accident in 1984. John later married Lyn and had two more children. Lyn Foley recalls some medical challenges he faced including attending a teenage girl who had unexpectedly delivered her baby at home. He faced the extreme dilemma faced in handling a case where a mother in mortal danger refused blood transfusion on religious grounds and died. Dr Owen Lewis recalls the ethical discussion raised by John in the practice meeting.

John was a deacon in the Mt Gambier Baptist Church and later served as President of the Baptist Union SA.  When not giving anaesthetics, John had a special interest in the care of drug and alcohol affected individuals. John did not encourage the use of alcohol but was often the recipient of gift bottles from grateful patients. These tokens found their way to Peter Charlton’s room!

Dr Peter Charlton was a partner of John in Hawkins Clinic for over 40 years. He speaks of the enormous support John was in the early days – not only in provision of anaesthesia, but in helping to stabilise patients in the emergency department when fellow GPs were on duty. Another fellow Christian GP of the town was Dr Jonathon Markey, who says, “I was always slightly in awe of John, in terms of his experience as a Christian and how it interacted in his role as a doctor. I do remember that he organised a conference in Mount Gambier of the Christian Medical Fellowship, which we all attended.”

John was called on to work as medical superintendent in Mt Gambier Hospital during the painful transition from private practitioner staffing to the days when GPs could no longer admit public patients since salaried staff were appointed. One of the partners in Hawkins Clinic, Dr Diana Cross, a GP Obstetrician, recalls how John was able to swiftly deal with bureaucratic processes and smooth difficult pathways for doctors. Dale Beatty worked as practice manager alongside John for many years, and recalls transitioning from hand-written to digital record-keeping. John, whose writing on the 6x 4 inch records cards was legendary in being indecipherable, led the way: first by starting to type his notes for the newer A4 record system, and then slowly and steadily persuading others in the practice to convert to clinical software record-keeping over a ten year period. 

Lyn remembers that John was very keen to have medical students visit their home for a meal during their time in “the Mount”, particularly if from overseas. 

“I think it was partly to get people to the country to work but also to show how a Christian home might work.” She writes, “We moved to Adelaide at the very end of 1999, ready for the 2000 school year. After a break, John began work at the Brian Burdekin Clinic, a Catholic initiative for the downtrodden. At that stage, it was run by the Singing Nun’s nephew, Dr Damian Mead. I think John must have begun some time in 2000 and finished at the end of 2004. He also took on some tutoring of Adelaide Uni medical students around that time.” 

In an envelope dated December 1996 which was sealed until after John’s death, Lyn found this paragraph regarding his work. John wrote, “In my work I have been conscious of great limitations. I have tried particularly to serve the poor and disadvantaged, only wishing to know how to convey to them the love of God. It has been my disappointment not to have found a way to do this more explicitly. I can only trust that my attitude has at least sometimes conveyed to them a compassion that is rooted in the love of God, and that somehow they may have sensed this beyond me”. 

John was a faithful and encouraging member of the CMDFA since the 1970s. Living remotely from the capital city, involvement was limited, but he sponsored a South-East Regional event to encourage local Christian practitioners, and later moved to leadership in the SA Branch.

“At an early stage in the development of Luke’s Journal, he became Editor and continued to serve in this role well into his retirement.”

At an early stage in the development of Luke’s Journal, he became Editor and continued to serve in this role well into his retirement. Under his leadership, Luke’s Journal became a highly respected journal, now with an online presence. Paul Mercer, who co-edited Luke’s Journal, writes, “John was a person who stood for Christ through thick and thin. He was committed to a strong sense of Christian vision of fairness, justice and compassion. He was committed to encountering the scriptures authentically and loved the Church despite its warts and all. John will be missed.” In John’s final editorial piece of December 2016 (p3), he gave examples of issues that need exploration with the help of scripture. These included “fair remuneration while not being greedy; opportunities for training for young doctors and dentists while balancing the disruption of family life; and the more equitable distribution of health resources in Australia and the world.”

John Foley and Paul Mercer shared the editorship of Luke’s Journal between 2006 and 2016. Paul says that John was a person who had excellent attention to detail and, with wisdom generated from a long and faithful journey with Christ and a very significant medical career, proved an excellent person to review, edit material and contribute in terms of writing editorials and other material. “In fact, John and I prepared our first editorial together, which I think he wrote in January 2006. There he paid a significant compliment to David and Denise Clarke for their previous valuable high standard work in getting Luke’s Journal to the position it was in.”

The theme of this first edition was, “The Doctor as a Patient”. With Covid, it is timely to consider how important this theme remains. John wrote, “Of the articles in this edition, some are unusually personal and remind us that we care not only for the body and the mind, but for the whole person as a spiritual being”. It was this holistic understanding of both work and faith that generated his contribution to the journal.

In that first edition, John also established a recurring contribution of articles entitled, “Doctors who made a Difference”. John chose the gospel writer Luke for his first reflection. I pick out his concluding comments, “Over twenty centuries, Luke still shows us so many qualities that challenge us in our callings as Dentists and Doctors. He has a concern for accuracy and detail – he can describe events clearly and vividly. He loves mercy, and cares for the poor and needy without distinction. And through all of this, the Lord Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit are to the forefront, not himself.” This category of “Doctors who made a Difference” included Dr Thomas Barnardo and Dr William Williams, the hymn writer. Reflecting on the legacy of Barnardo, John wrote, “His life is an example of what one man might achieve who is dedicated to a cause and is motivated by love for God and a sense of social need.” Paul Mercer describes these as recurrent themes for John in his own thinking and his faithfulness to the calling of God in his own life.

In an editorial on “Leadership” in 2007, John reflected on the biblical leader, Moses. He makes these comments, “The Scripture comments on his [Moses’] meekness, yet he could blaze with anger and act decisively. His very human qualities made him effective, even while they limited his personal reward. His deal with God as Israel set out on the journey was ‘if your presence will not go with me do not bring us up from here.’ So should it be for us.” John was good at and seemed to enjoy making these very simple and clear conclusions from his encounter with Scripture.

Another editorial introduced the theme of “Abortion”. This is clearly an emotional and challenging topic for Christian Doctors, and contained these words, “We hope that this issue of Luke’s Journal will help us participate in the public arena faithfully, presenting biblical teaching with faith, courtesy, humility and informed experience.” These words are also instructive in the thinking and integrity of John.

“John was responsible for the introduction of another feature of the Journal called “Fire in the Belly” where we were willing to accept and publish material that often we would not agree with.”

Indeed, John was responsible for the introduction of another feature of the Journal called “Fire in the Belly” where we were willing to accept and publish material that often we would not agree with. However, we felt it was honouring to CMDFA as a broad church, in a fellowship sense, so that people could express views that challenged other people’s perceptions and faith journey.

In the November 2010 editorial on the “Professional Life Cycle”, John again wrote some very helpful words. “Doctors are generally people of action and activity, often the criteria by which we judge ourselves and others. We like to be doing something and it is a wise man or woman who can stop and consider whether action is the best course. Indeed, in this competitive world, to be busy is to be on the road to success and to be too busy is so often a mark of distinction. But in the midst of their busy lives filled with action, Jesus called his disciples apart, to rest, and no doubt to reflect on the enjoyment of his care and company.” John encouraged readers in the contributions of this journal to “find yourselves secure in the love of God”.

In August 2011, John wrote an editorial for an edition, “What is it to be Human?” He made this summary, “To be human is to be the summit of God’s creation, now flawed, but, when embracing his redemption, destined for eternal glory”. He then reflectively wrote these words, “To work in the health professions is to gain insight into the frailty of our humanity – even while sometimes we are amazed at its resilience, courage, and loving self-sacrifice. If fallen humanity can show such examples of nobility, what will it be when we are, as the apostle John writes, “Like him, for we shall see him as he is”. Speed the day!”

In April 2014, John introduced an edition of the Journal taking up the theme of “History-taking and History-making”. He concluded his editorial with these words, “Scripture itself is a progressive revelation of God in history. The living Word reveals Himself in a person, but also in a narrative. And as our contributors observe for our patients, the history reveals the person. We discover it sometimes with wonder, but always with respect.” These words are very characteristic of John Foley.

In April 2016, John introduced a theme for Luke’s Journal around “Family Matters”. He very pithily reflected that, “While God’s first intention for society is a happy family life, the devil’s first intention is to use the family for sinful rebellion.” He ends his editorial with a very thick observation intellectually that, “The church is a family of God, sharing His very life and nature.”

 Dr Ken Clezy writes: “In retirement in Adelaide, John took over the running of a radio program dealing with old hymns. He researched and presented this very well, and it became at least as popular as its predecessor. He was also greatly involved in local church life. As an elder of the Burnside Christian Church, John’s godly wisdom and piety enabled him to help steer it through a very difficult period. Very few of those who worship at Burnside Family Church have any idea of what they owe to John Foley”.

Lyn Foley recalls the many phone calls John made to Dr Paul Mercer, fellow editor in Queensland, and how much they stressed him, particularly in the years leading up to when his dementia was diagnosed. 

John suffered dementia in his last years and was in residential aged care. He is survived by his wife Lyn, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. John was a courageous, straightforward and encouraging hero of the faith to many, not least to me.


Dr Owen Lewis
Dr Owen Lewis is a rural general practitioner who was mentored by John Foley when he first went into general practice in Mt Gambier in 1979. They were connected over the years through fellowship and leadership roles in CMDFA.

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