Honoring his wife while helping cancer patients

A legacy of caring

Wilson Society Member, Tom Foster ’88 (MA), ’90 (PhD) and Sandra Sabatka, a senior social worker at Wilmot Cancer Institute.

Alumnus’ generous gift to Wilmot Cancer Center will help lift barriers to patient care

Tom Foster ’88 (MA), ’90 (PhD) and his wife, Julietta Wolf-Foster, loved the Jersey shore. Every year, for the nearly 23 years of their marriage, they would venture to a southern Jersey barrier island, initially with their two daughters, Emily and Catherine.  After the girls grew up, the couple vacationed at those beaches on their own.

It was there during the early fall of 2010 when nearly constant, debilitating headaches prompted Tom to get his wife to a nearby community hospital, which happened to be an affiliate of the University of Pennsylvania. The ER doctors recognized that something was seriously wrong. Julietta was quickly airlifted to the university hospital’s neurosurgery intensive care unit in Philadelphia.

Julietta was soon diagnosed with glioblastoma—a malignant brain tumor.

Cancer and compassionate care

Two days later, Julietta had her first surgery. When well enough to travel, the Fosters drove back to Rochester. “The transfer of care from Penn to Rochester was seamless,” says Tom, a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Imaging Sciences, who knew some of the neuro-oncology people at both hospitals, including Dr. Nimish Mohile at the Wilmot Cancer Center. Dr. Mohile would be Julietta’s doctor for the next two years and seven months.

“Wilmot provided Julietta great care,” says Tom, as he thinks about Dr. Mohile; the physician’s assistant, Jennifer Serventi; the neurosurgeon, Dr. Walter; the radiation oncologist, Dr. Milano; the nursing staff; the social workers; and everyone who cared for his wife. “Julietta received an exceptional standard of care, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. We always felt like we were surrounded by an outstanding, compassionate team.  We never felt any need to explore options outside of Wilmot.”

A little over a year after the surgery, Julietta had her first recurrence of the cancer and underwent a second surgery, this time at the University of Rochester Medical Center. After another recurrence, Dr. Mohile put the couple in touch with the Dana Farber Institute. “We were told that it was a good time to participate in a clinical trial,” adds Tom. “So we did.”

Tom underscores how at various points during treatment one is confronted by the enormity, and the burden, of a cancer diagnosis. It is devastating not only for the patient, but also on the family.

An all-consuming diagnosis

“It’s all-consuming,” he says. “You are going to the doctor all of the time and managing complicated medication schedules. You have to get to so many appointments. And, there are many copays, logistics, and bills to keep track of. One year we reached our high deductible maximum out-of-pocket expense in January.”

Throughout Julietta’s care, Tom became increasingly interested in what other patients and their families were going through and how Wilmot’s social workers were always there to help.

“Fortunately, I was in a position where I could get Julietta to her appointments, and I could meet the expenses,” he says. “But, there are so many people who cannot. People who have to deliberate how they will get to radiation for six weeks when they don’t have a car. Or people who can’t afford their copay. Keep in mind, even if they ‘only’ have to pay 20 percent of a big number, that 20 percent is still a big number.”

She was a hugger

Julietta passed away on April 16, 2013. She had a passion for writing poetry, essays, and children’s stories. She applied her passion for words as a senior writing consultant in the University of Rochester’s College Writing Program. Julietta also loved playing the guitar and she learned to play the cello as an adult. In her obituary, Tom wrote “. . . her patience and love as a mother, grandmother, and as a wife had no discernable limits.” And, he adds, “She was a hugger. She hugged everyone.”

Later that year, Tom received a holiday appeal from Wilmot’s social workers, “asking for support for their patient needs fund,” he says.  During Julietta’s course of treatment, Tom had learned that this is the fund the social workers use to provide material support to families dealing with the practical and economic weight of the diagnosis, in addition to the emotional devastation of it.

Sandra Sabatka, a senior social worker at Wilmot, can attest to this. “We rely heavily on this fund to help people,” she says. “These are people who have to decide, do I take my medicine this week or buy groceries for my kids? Or, do I pay the electric bill or go to radiation?”

Sabatka and her team identify families with these needs. They intervene and support where they can, with gift cards to grocery stores, gas stations, and elsewhere. They are on the front lines managing the cancer care that doctors and nurses just can’t address.

That holiday appeal prompted what has become an annual tradition for Tom. Every December, he hand delivers a modest gift to the social work department.

That letter also prompted him to think about what else he could do.

Honoring his wife, helping cancer patients

Tom soon discovered a way he could honor Julietta’s memory, help patients in need at Wilmot, and provide financial support to his two adult daughters after his death. He established the Foster Endowment for Cancer Patient and Caregiver Needs.

“I never thought I could set up an endowment,” he says. “I only realized I could when I learned about charitable remainder trusts through the planned giving experts at the University. It was then that I said to myself ‘I have to redo my will’.”

And so he did.

The trust works like this: after Tom’s death, his daughters will receive interest off of his generous gift (five percent annually). Upon their deaths, the endowment will be realized, and Wilmot social workers will start drawing on the fund’s interest. They will decide how, where, and when to best support patient needs.

It is a gift that will last forever.

“Everyone benefits,” adds Tom. “There is no downside to establishing this trust.” Additionally, the trust has the potential to grow under the management of the University, where it will be comingled with the Long Term Investment Pool (most of which is endowment).

Tom pauses when asked what his wife was like. “Julietta was a beautiful woman,” he says. “She was an incredible wife, loving mother, a gifted writer, and a talented musician.” He adds, “Julietta would be very happy what we’ve done here, for Wilmot’s patients and for our daughters. Yes, I am sure—Julietta would like this a lot.”

For more information about integrating your personal and family financial goals with your charitable giving, please contact the University of Rochester’s Office of Trusts, Estates & Gift Planning.

—Kristine Thompson, March 2019