A legacy of compassionate cancer care
Thomas C. Shea, MD, who recently retired after nearly three decades of service to the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, has always been driven by the need to serve others.
“I had a realization that I had an obligation – whether it was through my career, or working with organizations like Family House or the local rotary club to find money to put together bikes for kids for Christmas – that I wanted to do my part to help others,” Shea said, reflecting on his career.
A double Tar Heel alumnus, Shea dedicated 27 years of service to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center as a hematologist-oncologist, researcher, teacher and as founder and director of the bone marrow transplant program.
He was recruited to UNC in 1992 to launch the bone marrow and stem cell transplant program – bringing important treatments for patients with advanced blood cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma — after launching a bone marrow transplant program at the University of California San Diego four years prior in 1988.
“We were so fortunate to recruit Tom back home,” said UNC Lineberger Director Shelton Earp, MD. “After the arduous task of starting a new program in California, he was ‘game’ to do it again; this time in his adopted home state. Not many in American medicine have had the ambition or stamina to start two transplant programs from scratch, but he has done it, and what a success it has been. This was at a time when the science of transplant was expanding, and Tom did both the legwork of program building, traveling the state and incorporating the latest advances into UNC’s effort.”
In addition to his contributions to stem cell transplant research and clinical care, Shea was critical in the development of the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals, an affordable home in Chapel Hill where patients and their families can stay while receiving treatment at UNC.
“Because bone marrow transplant requires long-term hospitalization and often longer post-discharge stays in town, Tom was a leader in helping families and patients,” Earp said. “He led the charge to convince the community and State Employees Credit Union to build this amazing structure. He was absolutely a linchpin in the development of the house and now in its current expansion.”
Shea retired as the John Pope Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research in September 2019. As he reflected on his career, he shared the motivations that started it all.
“I had a realization that I had an obligation – whether it was through my career, or working with organizations like Family House or the local rotary club to find money to put together bikes for kids for Christmas – that I wanted to do my part to help others,” Shea said.
From N.Y. to N.C.
Shea was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Manhasset, New York. He went to a Catholic high school that emphasized community service. That ethic stayed with him.
His family moved to North Carolina because of the work opportunities for his father, Thomas M. Shea, who was chief of engineering for the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, now known as GlaxoSmithKline.
Shea’s father oversaw the move of the company’s research and administrative facilities to the Research Triangle Park and of the construction of a manufacturing plant in Greenville, N.C. When Shea’s parents moved to Greenville in 1970, he started college at UNC-Chapel Hill.
That wasn’t Shea’s first introduction to Carolina. When he was growing up in New York, he saw a lot of Tar Heel basketball on TV.
“UNC had a lot of panache in the New York area, partly from basketball and partly for the university’s academic excellence,” Shea said.
In his first year at Carolina, he lived in the dorm suite with basketball players. He later became resident advisor of the floor on which the team lived.
“I was a big fan,” Shea said.
Travel was a big part of Shea’s education.
After his first semester at Carolina, one of Shea’s professors recommended him for his first medical position as a gardener in a hospital in Montana. He had an interest in traveling west, so he agreed. His roommates were a semi-professional boxer who was barred from the ring for excessive violence and an ex-Army soldier who had been dishonorably discharged.
“It was an eye opening experience for a young college student,” Shea said.
After he graduated early from Carolina in December 1973, he worked to save money to travel in Asia for three months before starting medical school. He went to India, Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan to get an understanding of the world. Among other things, the experience opened his eyes to the health and economic conditions there.
He graduated from medical school in 1978, and then spent a year in a mission hospital in Nicaragua. He returned to Chapel Hill in the spring of 1979 as unrest erupted.
During his internship training, Shea met his future wife, Kathy, who had started her residency training in pediatrics at UNC Medical Center.
However, it wasn’t until Shea left to complete his training Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, that they started dating.
They had both bought puppies from the same litter, and the growing puppies kept them in touch. They became engaged by the end of Shea’s second year of residency training.
‘An integral part of someone’s life’
When it was time to consider additional specialty medical training, Shea saw hematology-oncology as a challenging, evolving field that would allow him to establish personal relationships with patients, as well as to be involved in research.
“You really become a primary care physician instead of a consultant, but with a specific and major diagnosis that you are trying to grapple with,” he said. “You become an integral part of someone’s life … they really are putting their life in your hands.”
Shea completed his fellowship at a time when the bone marrow transplant program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was growing. In this procedure, a patient receives healthy blood-forming stem cells to replace their own stem cells after high treatment doses of chemotherapy eliminate the cancerous cells. Patients can either receive a transplant of their own preserved, healthy stem cells or cells from a donor.
Shea signed up as a transplant postdoctoral fellow at Harvard to continue his training. He eventually became an instructor at Harvard before leaving in 1988 for UC San Diego to launch the institution’s bone marrow transplant program.
“It was a new program, it was a new move, so it was a big deal,” he said.
He worked for four years at UC San Diego before UNC recruited him. The move was professional and personal since he wanted to be closer to his father, who was ill.
It was a time when UNC was working to increase the size and prominence of the oncology program overall, Earp said.
“I became aware of Tom’s relationship with UNC, both his training and his terrific start of the program at UC San Diego,” said Earp, the then-deputy director of the cancer center. “We contacted him to see if he might be interested in coming home.”
At UNC, Shea launched the program to do both autologous transplants, in which a patient receives a transplant of their own stem cells, and allogeneic transplants, which uses stem cells from a donor.
“A transplant program was part of the higher end of the oncology treatment world, and was something major centers were looking to develop,” Shea said.
His role involved managing the research and clinical aspects of the program, Earp said, but also training staff and generating procedures. Shea traveled across North Carolina to educate oncologists.
“It was really through this that Tom became, and I believe still is to this day, one of the most visible oncologists at our institution,” Earp said.
The program physically ran out of space as it grew. The N.C. Cancer Hospital was built in 2009 to include a 16-bed unit for bone marrow transplant. The program has since moved to a new 24-bed unit in the neurosciences hospital.
“From the standpoint of hematologic malignancies, bone marrow transplant was a critical component of treating people with leukemias, lymphomas, and multiple myeloma,” said Beverly Mitchell, MD, former director of the Stanford Cancer Institute and George E. Becker Professor in medicine. “At the time, we really didn’t have effective therapies for many of these very serious diseases. We needed advanced therapy, and that was provided by bone marrow transplantation.”
Building a team
Shea said he had to build a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, social workers and other staff that worked well together and had respect for one another. A strong team was critical for administrating a treatment that had risks for patients.
“You’ve got to be confident that … everybody is in this together,” he said.
Shea said his approach was balancing patient care with research and new technology, and making sure his team was taken care of.
“Some people are better at research … and you also need people who can bring that technology to the bedside. I think that for me, I was always a little bit better at the bedside, and No. 2, I think I was pretty good at giving people their own sense of independence so that everyone could contribute (to the team).”
Mitchell, who was chief of hematology-oncology at the UNC School of Medicine from 1994-2003, said Shea was a “fantastic colleague” who helped recruit new faculty and staff.
“His whole approach of being collegial helped facilitate not just the BMT program, but the whole division’s growth,” she said. “He was there to create the best bone marrow transplant program possible,” she added. “He succeeded, which is quite a tribute.”
Shea was the kind of leader who wouldn’t ask his team to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, said Jonathan Serody, MD, the Elizabeth Thomas Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology and chief of the hematology division. Shea listened to staff at all levels, and trusted his team.
“He was phenomenally good at identifying good people and empowering them to do their jobs,” Serody said.
Serody recalled that when he was still a physician-in-training, Shea took him to lunch on Franklin Street to talk about the program. Shea was “probably one of the more gracious individuals that you’ll meet.”
Later on, when Serody was starting up a lab, Shea gave him his own funding when his dried up due to a financial crisis.
“And he didn’t ask anything substantial in return … except to use (the money) wisely,” Serody said.
Serody is now the leader of the clinical immunotherapy program, which Shea’s contributions helped to lay the foundation for. In this approach a patient’s immune cells are removed and genetically engineered to fight their own cancer. Shea served as medical co-director of the combined UNC Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program.
Recognition and a friendship
In 2010, Shea was elected chair for a three-year term of the Center for International Bone Marrow Transplant Research Scientific Advisory Committee. This international group oversees research generated from a repository of data from records of more than 400,000 transplants worldwide completed across four decades.
“It was quite an honor,” Shea said.
In addition, Shea was the recipient of a distinguished professorship in cancer research as a result of a $1.3 million gift from the Raleigh-based John William Pope Foundation. The foundation made the gift in honor of Shea, who was John W. Pope’s physician.
“The professorship was a wonderful recognition by the Pope family of the excellent care we provided to John when he was sick,” Shea said. “It also allowed me, and will allow future recipients, to continue to develop our research portfolio of clinical trials and translational research that is essential to move the next generation of cancer treatments from the bench to the bedside.”
Shea received several other honors during his career, including N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper awarding him the Order of the Longleaf Pine, and two of WCHL’s Hometown Hero awards for service to the people of Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
His sponsor for the honor was W.G. Champion “Champ” Mitchell, who credited Shea with saving his life. Mitchell was treated for stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. Shea led the team that put the lymphoma into remission.
“I credit Tom with my being alive today,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell had received chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant after his diagnosis, and a blood test indicated the lymphoma had recurred. Shea told him that they were running out of treatment options, but “he couldn’t have been more caring and gentle.”
“It wasn’t like he was just a doctor coming in to tell me about this, it was like a friend coming in to give me news that he didn’t want to give me, and he didn’t want to be true,” Mitchell said. “Tom just struggled and tried everything he could think of to keep me alive, and ultimately it worked.”
They became friends, and Mitchell said Shea “took unembarrassed advantage of a poor recovering patient on the golf course.”
The care he received inspired Champ and his wife, Etteinne “ET” Mitchell, to make a $10 million gift to create the Champ and ET Mitchell Fund for Blood Cancer Research. Mitchell said he wanted to support next-generation therapies for blood cancers.
Continued commitment to service
In retirement, Shea plans to work with satellite clinics that are part of the UNC Health cancer programs across the state. He also is looking forward to playing more golf, as well as traveling and camping with his wife, Kathy. He joined the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club in order to participate in their long list of community projects, and will be serving dinner at the SECU Family House.
The Sheas have two children. Their son, Joe, is works Atlanta for a company that specializes in sustainable carpet manufacturing. Their daughter, Meg, is a researcher physicist who lives in Washington D.C. She was married at the Sheas’ home in Chapel Hill in late March during the COVID-19 pandemic.