The Foley Catheter

Where did the Chevrolet brand name come from?

Where does the Chevrolet brand name come from?

Out of respect for the slightly squeamish, the dedicated avoiders, and the overly nervous, I’ll start with a trivia quiz.

What do Louis Chevrolet, Rudolf Diesel, Jack Foley, Bill Gore, Jules Leotard, and John Stetson all have in common?

Have you ever owned a Chevy? How about a Chevy with a diesel engine? While you were driving that vehicle, did you toss a Gore-Tex jacket onto the seat because the forecast called for rain? Before you entered the car, had you been to yoga in your leotard? Maybe, because it’s your favorite hat, a Stetson was already jauntily positioned on your head?

There are many things named after the persons who invented, designed, or developed the original version. Some of those became familiar and universally recognized, such as the car company Louis Chevrolet helped start back in the early 20th century. Some are obscure, like Jack Foley’s invention.

Though I didn’t mention Mr. Foley in the paragraph about driving a Chevy while wearing a leotard, I could’ve added a trip to the movies to include his invention. Silent movies were the Hollywood standard back in the 1920s . . . but then sound become possible. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, loudly transformed the film industry. Talkies! However, people did more than talk in movies. What about footsteps, wind blowing, birds chirping, the hero’s fist smacking the bad guy’s chin, or a Chevy backfiring like a rifle shot? If you scrutinize the credits on a movie, you will usually notice a Foley artist. The Foley artist adds many of the extra sound effects.

John Donavan Foley, 1891-1967, made it possible for film fans everywhere to enjoy movies that sounded like, well, the world around us!

Speaking of Mr. Foley, have you ever heard about one of his contemporaries? While John was causing a noisy revolution in Hollywood, a different and unrelated Foley—Dr. Frederic Eugene Basil Foley—was quietly exploring a different subject. The physician Foley, born in the same year (1891) and month (April) as Hollywood’s Foley, died a year before in 1966. Dr. Foley’s legacy, his namesake, isn’t featured in Hollywood . . . but in the health care industry.

Ah, I give you the Foley catheter. (If you cringe, I’ll understand.)

Dr. Foley's invention . . .

Dr. Foley’s invention . . .

It took me awhile to get here. I wanted to ease you into this moment. After all, some are squeamish about any medical equipment. There are also folks who avoid mentioning any uncomfortable subject, in particular ones that relate to, er, certain bodily functions. And, since a Foley catheter is frequently discussed or used during a health crisis, it likely makes nearly everyone nervous. No one wants a Foley catheter inserted into their . . .

Dr. Foley theorized the possibility of a functioning catheter in 1929. By the 1930s, his idea had become a reality: a flexible tube passed through the urethra and into the bladder. It provided a way for the bladder to be continuously emptied into a bag outside the body. Foley’s new device was a remarkable step for patient care.

Nobody likes a Foley catheter.

Though there have been improvements to the good doctor’s original idea, the modern Foley catheter is similar to those first used in the 1930s.

Now in my early 60s, I have not (yet) personally experienced the benefits of Dr. Foley’s invention. But millions have, and I’m pretty confident that 100% of those millions would’ve preferred to never have the experience. However, what Dr. Foley knew almost a century ago is still true today. There are times when a person—a patient—literally needs assistance to do one of the most basic of human functions. A catheter is often uncomfortable, it limits personal freedom, and it creates an environment for infections. But it works.

When I listen to the hospice nurses converse about catheters, it’s obvious they know Dr. Foley’s tool causes embarrassment, hesitation, and outright refusal. Nurses also know, especially because of infections, they must pay rigorous, regular attention to the Foley’s operation. They need patients and families to inform them of any problems. They need those same patients and families to pay attention when the nurse recommends the use of a catheter. Dr. Foley’s invention may very well limit personal freedom, but it also allows personal freedom. When the most basic of human functions is compromised, something (literally) has to give. When properly working, the catheter can change a patient’s misery into comfort (or at least into less misery). It may also mean a caregiver’s physical exhaustion and feelings of helplessness will be reduced.

1931's "The Public Enemy"

1931’s “The Public Enemy”

As a film fan, I’m indebted to John Foley’s clever additions of “natural” sounds. Back in the 1930s, he made “talkies” a better experience. When James Cagney shoved a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” I’m glad that chairs scraped the floor, dishes rattled, and the fruit made a soft splat against Ms. Clark’s mouth. What fun!

Though none of us are fans of bladder concerns, I’m also glad for Dr. Foley’s “unnatural” way to help patients deal with a basic human need.

If you’re a hospice patient, your nurse will understand your resistance to a catheter. But he or she is only suggesting it for the same reason Dr. Foley invented it: patient comfort and safety.

We’d all rather drive a Chevy or dance in a leotard. But sometimes, we need to invite Dr. Foley into our lives.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather


  1. wow! What a great introduction to the Foley catheter. As one who has had personal experience with the Foley and learned to self insert I’m glad to learn more about the Foley. The one thing I would question a bit is the universal dislike of a catheter. Actually I have experienced very painful insertion by nurses in rehab to actually painless self insertion after training by physician. To me use of a catheter is a very positive experience and when necessary is a gift of true freedom. I want to thank you for the unique manner in which you introduced the subject. I certainly hope to purchase copy of your new offering. Thank you for the post.

    • John, I think the nearly universal “dislike” is contemplating the need for a catheter. It can represent a step, even if only a transitory, temporary step, that all would prefer to avoid. For example, I suppose a few might love showing up at the doctor’s office to be poked and prodded for an annual exam . . . but the majority (at least for a few seconds of foolish fantasy) likely hope they will never get ill and therefore never need any poking or prodding. But I could be wrong!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.