The family man

The family man

Thomas Chiu steps down as pediatrics chair after 20 years

 By Matt Galnor

Dr. Thomas Chiu with his wife, Anna

The late 1980s and early 1990s were hectic times for the department of pediatrics at the UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Contracts were in the works, various partnerships were being negotiated and the role of the department in the community wasn’t clear.

The official relationship between UF and Jacksonville was still in its infancy, and rumors swirled about local children’s hospitals absorbing the department.

Thomas T. Chiu, M.D., M.B.A., was chief of the division of neonatology — a successful practice and a division many looked to as an example of a perfect blend of academics, clinical work and collaboration with other hospitals in the region. Chiu negotiated and implemented a citywide program that was so successful it became a national model.

So why would Chiu step aside from that role to run a department in flux? Even though it might not seem like the best move, Chiu thought it might help children in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida if someone who knew the department and had a serious track record of partnerships was able to build it and grow it.

“If your focus is what’s best for the children, you’re not going to go wrong,” Chiu said. “Don’t think ‘What’s best for me’ or ‘What’s best for the money.’ If your focus is what’s best for children, for this community, for this region, you won’t be far off.”

Twenty years later, Chiu is stepping aside from his role as chair and will hand over the reins of a department that has more faculty than any other on the Jacksonville campus — and produces two-thirds of its research funding.

Chiu will stay on as faculty. He hopes to spend more time doing the clinical work that he loves — and taking time out for coffee and breakfast with Anna, his wife of almost 40 years.

When Chiu announced plans to step down as chair last year, division chiefs and other faculty members signed a letter pleading with him to change his mind. Chiu didn’t. But he sought out everyone who signed the letter to thank them in person.

One of those people was Elisa A. Zenni, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and associate dean for educational affairs.

“He runs the department with vision and strong business sense, but he runs it like a family. He knows you, he knows your children,” Zenni said. “That’s why people stay here. We can thrive professionally and still be a part of a family.”

Chiu has been connecting and leveraging partnerships for years, even prior to becoming chair, establishing a citywide neonatology program that helped bring down the infant mortality rate.

Chiu also took it upon himself to learn the business end of things, earning a master’s in business administration from Jacksonville University in 1988 — a time where there was little co-mingling between doctors and the business leaders.

For years he has worked seven days a week. His schedule doesn’t allow him to do rounds during the week. So he goes nearly every weekend.

“People say ‘You’re the chair. You don’t have to do that.’ Well, I like to do clinical work,” said Chiu. “I like to keep the skills.”

He thought he’d have more time after stepping down as chair, but he was recently appointed medical director of external affairs for pediatrics, a role where he’ll be working closer on partnerships between UF and Wolfson.

He’s also organizing a trip for medical students to his native Hong Kong and China. His calendar’s fuller than he anticipated.

The coffee and breakfast on the weekends with Anna, Chiu laughs, might have to wait another year.