After 37 Years and Thousands of Patients, Exmore Ophthalmologist To Retire

Dr. John Foley, who is retiring from his Exmore practice, Eastern Shore Eye Center, sits behind his exam microscope, called a slit lamp. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Dr. John Foley, an ophthalmologist who is known for his longstanding career at his practice, the Eastern Shore Eye Center, in Exmore, is ready to retire after more than 37 years and 42,000 patients.

Foley was born and raised in Boston, where he lived for about 20 years. After graduating from college, he worked for Pan American Airways in the early 1970s.

He hadn’t always aimed to be a doctor. Foley had planned to attend law school but that changed in 1975 when he experienced a minor eye injury while working on his farm. He was assisting someone welding a cattle guard and the flame’s ultraviolet rays burned his eye, he explained.

He sought medical treatment and was impressed by how numbing eye drops and a patch over his eye provided “instant” relief. Foley thought, “I could do that,” and the welding incident sparked his interest in pursuing a career as an eye doctor.

Foley attended the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, followed by a residency at a small clinic in Pennsylvania.

He had intended to return to New England after his residency but discovered the frigidly cold northern winters that turned his hands blue might not create the best environment for an aspiring eye surgeon, and he considered staying in Virginia with its milder climate.

His colleagues at Eastern Shore Physicians and Surgeons, in Nassawadox, Dr. William Bernart and Dr. Drury Stith, played a significant role in Foley’s decision to stay, conveying to him the great need for doctors in the rural area.

They also helped him obtain financing to start his own practice, and Foley’s first office opened in 1984, across the street from the Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital.

He later bought and renovated a building on Broad Street in Exmore, which had been a Colonial grocery store in the 1950s and 1960s and later served as the cutting room for the shirt factory across the street, which is now the New Ravenna mosaic tile manufacturer.

Foley designed the layout of the Eastern Shore Eye Center on his Apple computer, and the new office opened in 1990, following the completion of the renovations.

When his business was at its peak, he had 16 employees. The first person he ever hired is still employed at Eastern Shore Eye Center, office manager Peggy Parks.

He is somewhat a rarity in his field as a practitioner of general ophthalmology. Most ophthalmologists today choose not to be general practitioners but specialists, Foley said.

He was motivated to become an ophthalmologist because he wanted to be able to provide surgical care for the eye. “The ability to operate on the eye is the ability to cure eye problems,” he said.

Foley maintained a relationship with Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital over the years, which later changed its name to Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital. He was not a hospital employee but was on staff and usually worked there one day a week in the operating room. He also was always on call for emergencies.

He is thankful that he has been able to achieve good results for most of the thousands of patients he has treated over the years.

The most amazing recovery Foley has witnessed was that of a patient who arrived at the doctor’s office with a nail in his eye. The man had been on a riding mower cutting grass when he ran over the nail, which was flung into a chain-link fence and bounced off the fence and into his eye.

Foley removed the nail and the cataract that was caused by the nail puncturing the eye’s lens. He replaced the damaged lens with an implant and stitched up the wound; the patient’s eye and vision were saved.

He has completed around 20,000 surgeries; about 1,500 of the surgeries were for glaucoma and the rest were for cataracts or other conditions.

Foley also has been a professor for Eastern Virginia Medical School for 36 years, giving lectures and supervising residents.

He was not the only accomplished doctor in his family; his brother, the late Dr. Michael T. Foley, was the physician-in-attendance for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park for nearly 25 years.

Dr. John Foley’s work has kept him busy over the years, but he always made time for his kids and kept weekends open to do things with his family. He and his wife, Karen Foley, have four children, John, Kate, Matt, and Tye, who enjoyed spending time on the water and growing up on the Eastern Shore.

Dr. Foley also coached Little League for 11 years in Nassawadox.

Having practiced medicine on the Shore close to 40 years, Foley has treated multiple generations of families. It’s not uncommon for younger patients to tell him that he’s taken care of an older family member, such as a great grandmother. “I get that all the time,” he said.

He even met his wife, now-retired educator Karen Foley (formerly Young), for the first time about 30 years ago when she was his patient. The entire Young family received eye care from Dr. Foley.

Karen had been twice widowed when she ran into Dr. Foley, who was also single, at Food Lion just before Christmas in 2014, and they were happy to see one another again.

A few months passed before they were able to reconnect, but the couple finally went on their first date and hit it off.

Now they have been married five years and are looking forward to being retired together and traveling.

Among their retirement and travel plans is spending more time visiting their grandchildren, who are spread out on the East Coast as far south as Georgia and as far north as Maine. The Foleys also would like to visit family in Germany.

Dr. Foley wants to spend summers in Cape Cod and also hopes to visit the Virgin Islands. The couple already has made arrangements to travel to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land in January 2022.

Dr. Foley is currently working two days a week, and he will be fully retired in December.

The Wagner Macular and Retina Center, which has multiple locations in Hampton Roads, is acquiring Foley’s practice and merging it with Seashore Eyecare, also in Exmore. Patients will be seen at the current location of Seashore Eyecare, on Main Street.

Foley has enjoyed well over three decades of providing eye care to generations of Eastern Shore families. “I have loved my practice and the people. … I know almost everybody’s first name and family histories,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a better job.”

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