Ignite | Fall 2022
Mentors and Moments: Thomas File
BY RODERICK L. INGRAM SR.
Talk to any transformational leader in the health professions long enough and space exploration is likely to find its way into the conversation. Advancing science to discover the unknown and the impact it may have on the human body resonates with many. For others, space exploration is simply generational — astronauts were like superheroes, especially to those kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s.
But for Thomas File, M.D., the first artificial satellite in outer space was just the first on a long list of pivotal events and people that contributed to him becoming a leader at treating infectious diseases.
Dr. File reflected, “I remember very vividly in grade school when Sputnik [the first artificial Earth satellite, launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957] went up. It seemed that teachers would say to all good students that you have to go into science because we had to catch up to the Soviet Union. I wasn’t very interested in space, basic science or lab research, though. I was more interested in helping people from the clinical aspect.”
While competing with the cosmonauts wasn’t in his plans, the push from his teachers did help fuel his interest in science.
And with that foundation, Dr. File eventually went to medical school at the University of Michigan.
He marvels at the impact certain events can have on one’s life. He noted, “It’s the moments and people you encounter in life that influence who you become.”
At Michigan, he thought he had it all figured out — he was going to pursue family practice.
“Around the time I was finishing medical school in 1972, I got married to my then girlfriend [Mary], who was also in medical school, but at Ohio State [University]. So, I matched at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus for my residency,” he said.
Another pivotal moment.
“While I was doing my residency, the very first resident who was with me was focused on infectious disease and had been accepted into a fellowship. And he influenced me greatly,” Dr. File said.
“A lot of what we do has to do with mentorship and the inspiration we’ve had from people with whom we’ve worked,” he added.
During his residency, he was placed as a house staff member on the infection control committee where he worked with infectious disease specialists. After residency he completed an Infectious Diseases Fellowship at Ohio State University Hospitals.
“I thought it was a very intriguing field as you can actually cure patients the majority of times,” Dr. File said. “After I finished fellowship in 1977, my wife was still in residency at the time, so I stayed at Ohio State as an instructor.”
The year before, there was an outbreak of a type of pneumonia at a Philadelphia convention. And what eventually became known as Legionnaires’ disease found its way to Columbus in 1977.
Dr. File became one of several health professionals involved in evaluating Columbus’ outbreak.
The Legionnaires’ disease experience piqued his interest in pneumonia and respiratory infections.
“So, I got involved with a lot of clinical trials having to do with pneumonia over the years and eventually became considered an expert in community-acquired pneumonia,” Dr. File said.
In 1979, when Drs. Tom and Mary File moved to Akron, Ohio — where Mary was born and raised — Dr. Tom File joined James Tan, M.D., who had been the first head of infectious diseases at Summa Health. Dr. Tan was also the first chairman of the infectious diseases section at NEOMED.
Infectious disease became Dr. File’s niche as he would practice with his mentor Dr. Tan for 16 years.
“I also got involved with the Infectious Disease Society of America and was elected president in 2020. Then COVID-19 due to SARS-CoV-2 — a major unprecedented pandemic — hit,” Dr. File said.
SUPPORTING PUBLIC HEALTH AND SCIENCE
Fear, distrust and politics, all made the dissemination of public health information at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic difficult, to say the least. But Dr. File was among those on the list of experts who kept the nation informed, educated and safe. And like Dr. Fauci, these public health officials, epidemiologists, virologists and infection disease specialists were constantly sought for their expertise on the evolving pandemic.
As Dr. File became well-known, he emerged as a primary source for international guidelines and UpToDate — an online provider of synthesized available clinical evidence and best clinical practices that helps clinicians provide high-quality care to their patients — where he currently writes the section on community-acquired pneumonia.
Dr. File engaged with policy makers, developing recommendations and guidelines on how to manage COVID-19. He also dealt with a lot of politicians.
In March 2020, he was invited to a meeting at the White House by then-President Trump who had just formed a White House taskforce with leaders of societies — American Thoracic, Critical Care, American College of Physicians, and many more — to discuss issues. Travel was discouraged, so they met remotely.
Even at this advanced stage of his career, Dr. File stresses the important role that getting involved in groups plays in one’s development as a leader.
Dr. File added, “There is such unpredictability and uncertainty with this pandemic. If you would’ve told me in March 2020 that we would still be in the pandemic in July 2022 [the month this interview was conducted], I would’ve thought no, the infection will run its course and we will be out of it by then. I mean we started administering the vaccine in December of 2020. We thought it would end the pandemic.
“Viruses change, these new mutations and variants have changed the course of the pandemic. We learned a lot about pandemic preparedness. This is global. We also learned that the more we cooperate with others and the more we develop policies based on true science, the better off we’ll be.”
But that’s not what happened.
“That’s one of the unfortunate aspects of the pandemic — how it’s been politicized. We should all be working together,” Dr. File said.
Still, he remains optimistic.
“We think it will evolve into an endemic or a seasonal infection like a common cold or flu-type disease. And that would be a good thing,” Dr. File said. “The bivalent vaccine omicron gives us better protection with newer variants than boosters do, as it includes greater targets for mutated strains to prevent mild infections and serious disease.”
A member of Northeast Ohio Medical University’s Master Teacher Guild, Dr. File teaches students and residents. He holds chairs of Infectious Disease at Summa Health and NEOMED, assuming the roles of his mentor Dr. Tan (now deceased), providing interactive lectures to first- and second-year students. He primarily focuses on patient care, teaching and clinical research.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced many to see the importance of the workforce for infectious disease and public health in going forward. We are always finding new pathogens,” Dr. File said.
With Dr. Mary File, an ophthalmologist, he shares two children and five grandchildren. Their daughter, Elizabeth File, M.D., and son-in-law, Jon Trecek, M.D., are both 2002 NEOMED College of Medicine graduates.
“We need to have good specialists. It’s very gratifying,” he said. “You see seriously ill patients who come to the hospital. They can have meningitis, pneumonia, etc. With the interventions we are able to provide, 90% of those patients are cured. And it’s very satisfying to be involved in that process and help patients heal.”