The Ultimate Adventure
words by mary ann littell / photography by david howarth
s a child born in Newark and growing up in West Paterson, NJ, Ginamarie Foglia never dreamed she’d study infectious diseases, join the Army, practice medicine in Kenya or become a corporate executive. She’s done all that and more. “I’m an adventurous spirit, and it’s taken me to some pretty interesting places,” she observes. “I’m always game for trying something new.”
The physician, a graduate of UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM), class of ’93, lives in Stroudsburg, PA, where she is director of clinical development at sanofi-pasteur, the world’s largest maker of vaccines. She leads a team conducting Phase II clinical trials on a promising vaccine for Clostridium difficile, a lethal organism that causes hospital-acquired infections. “This organism is epidemic in some parts of the world,” she says. “I’ve treated patients who were infected, and actually lost a patient to it.”
Her interest in infectious diseases began early, back in the 1980s, when a beloved uncle contracted HIV. “There was so much fear and misunderstanding over HIV back then,” she explains. “When my uncle got sick and we called an ambulance to take him to the hospital, the EMTs didn’t want to touch him. I always remembered that — it’s what first got me thinking about a career in medicine. I wondered if I could do better.”
A self-described ‘fitness nut,’ Foglia has such boundless enthusiasm for every activity she takes on that “it was a challenge to narrow down what I wanted to do. I love music and started playing the organ at age 3, so for awhile I wanted to be a musician. I also love sports and was a particularly strong swimmer, so I considered training for the Olympics. But in our house academics ruled, so I ended up taking that route.”
Foglia decided on a career in medicine in her second year of college, earning a master’s degree in public health at Yale University before going to medical school. “Initially I wanted to be a surgeon,” she says. “But my rotation in infectious diseases with Dr. David Condolucci at SOM clinched it for me. What interests me most about infectious diseases is the way they affect every organ, every body system. This specialty requires you to be well versed in all aspects of medicine.”
Asked how she ended up in the Army, Foglia says, “It’s a funny story.” After finishing medical school, Foglia married and did a residency in internal medicine in West Virginia. “I ran down to the doctor’s lounge to grab a cup of coffee, and who do I encounter but an Army recruiter. We started chatting.” The recruiter told her about an Army scholarship that would provide her with money to pay off her education loans. She could continue her training wherever she wanted. In return, after she finished training, she’d spend four years in active duty and four years as a reserve.
“I was intrigued,” she says. “I don’t like to be in debt. My parents helped with my education, and I moonlighted during my residency, but it’s expensive. My father served in the military, and I’m a patriotic person, so I decided to try for the scholarship, and I was successful.” Coincidentally, she received an AMA Leadership Award which was presented by the Army Surgeon General Roland Blanck. They talked about career options in the Army, and he encouraged her to go into the vaccine research program, describing it as a high-priority initiative offering opportunities to travel.
Following training in epidemiology and preventive medicine and a fellowship in infectious diseases at the CDC, Foglia reported to San Antonio on July 4, 2000 to begin her basic training. “I remember standing outside at 4:30 a.m. in my BDU (battle dress uniform). It was quite an experience.” Upon finishing basic training in September (where she received the physical fitness excellence award), she went to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center doing research and teaching.
Several months later, her commander at Walter Reed asked her if she was interested in leading the U.S. military HIV program in Kenya. “It sounded like the ultimate adventure,” she says. She and her husband traveled to Kenya to check it out. She accepted the assignment and they moved there in June 2002. Her husband received clearance to work as a diplomatic courier at the U.S. Embassy and both were given diplomatic status.
“I loved Kenya. The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. But there were enormous challenges. Remember MacGyver?” she says, referring to the hit TV show about a secret agent who solved complex problems with only a Swiss Army knife. “That was me. I wore many hats—including a hard hat.” Among the items on her to-do list: setting up a research center, clinical center, laboratory, maternal and child center and supervising the renovation of a hospital. “There was no infrastructure and few resources. You had to make do and be creative. I grew so much personally, but it was hard. Also, my husband was four hours away in Nairobi, so I was alone much of the time. I would travel to see him on weekends.”
The drive to Nairobi could be treacherous: narrow, unpaved roads winding around steep cliffs. On one trip, a heavy steel toolbox flew out of a passing truck and slammed through her windshield. Miraculously, she escaped serious injury. She’d just adopted two large rescue dogs, Samson and Delilah, and they were with her in the car. “They stayed and protected me until help came,” she recalls.
The high point of her work in Kenya was bringing treatment to HIV patients who would not otherwise have had access to care. “I was honored when the U.S. Army Surgeon General visited our site to commend us for our research, education and treatment efforts,” she says. “But my biggest honor came when one of my Kenyan staff named her baby daughter Victory Foglia after me. It’s very special knowing I have a Foglia namesake in Kenya.”
Despite the challenges, Foglia calls Kenya an “incredible experience. I’d still be there if my father hadn’t gotten sick.” In 2005 she returned to Stroudsburg, where her parents lived, to coordinate his treatment for pancreatic cancer. He had surgery at Johns Hopkins and follow-up care at a local hospital, Pocono Medical Center. Foglia spent a lot of time there overseeing his treatment. On a whim, she sent her CV to the hospital’s human resources department. “Talk about being in the right place at the right time,” she laughs. “The CEO approached me to say they needed an infectious disease specialist. I decided to take the position. It meant that I could stay in Stroudsburg and be close to my parents. I wasn’t used to working at a community medical center, but it was a wonderful learning experience.”
Despite his diagnosis, Foglia’s father initially did well. “He was in remission for a year and a half,” she says. “He and my mother visited Kenya with me and we went on a safari. I was so glad we could do this before he died.”
Foglia continued her work at the hospital, practicing infection control and using her epidemiology background. But she missed research. Fortuitously, a few sanofi-aventis executives were connected to the hospital, one as a member of the board of directors. “They’d heard of me, because when I was in the military I did some clinical trials with them. Over time we got to know each other and I ended up working there.”
At sanofi, Foglia worked first on seasonal and pandemic flu studies, including some for the H1N1 vaccine. Her current project overseeing the Clostridium difficile vaccine trials is a major initiative at the company. “It’s a serious form of hospital-acquired diarrhea that is particularly deadly to those over 60,” she explains. A typical workday begins early. She exercises, then goes to work. “I write protocols for trials and monitor them both on-site and off. I’m also on the faculty at a brand-new medical school in Scranton. It’s a fun mix of activities.
“When I left Africa, I left a part of me behind,” she continues. “Coming back here, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. Should I have gone to a major medical center? But one thing leads to another, and I found a job I love. I’m here with my mother, and my husband found a good job too.” They also found a rescue dog, Winston, “who’s the love of my life.” Winston, an 80-pound Australian shepherd, “is my baby.”
A flag flies at her house in Stroudsburg in remembrance of her father. “It’s a long way from Kenya,” she says, “but life is good here.”