Deep in the labyrinthine heart of a Children’s Hospital Los Angeles administrative building is the office of pediatric pulmonologist Thomas Keens. You’ll know you’ve made it when you see a movie poster mock-up reading “Thoracic Park” above the door.
Once inside, you may be reminded of an adage correlating busy minds and cluttered desks — Keens, who goes by “Tom,” is more of a piles guy than a files guy — but the office’s contents are impressive. The walls of this standard-issue cube labor under the weight of credentials and accomplishments.
Commendations from the National Medical Board of Examiners crowd others from the American Board of Pediatrics. One plaque announces Keen’s 1962 Eagle Scout ranking, while another proclaims the longtime La Cañada resident a certified lifetime member of the Magic Castle’s Academy of Magical Arts.
“It was probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done,” Keens recalls of the audition before a panel of magicians.
Another plaque documents an apostolic blessing from Pope John Paul II offered during a 1999 trip to the Vatican, where Keens and wife Susan sang before the pontiff with La Cañada’s St. Bede Roman Catholic Church choir.
A young man who once enrolled for undergraduate study at a liberal arts college after a high school English teacher suggested he was too narrow minded, Keens today at 72 is a well-rounded individual. Yet that versatility somehow only serves to enhance the physician’s unflagging and lifelong devotion to the field of pediatric pulmonology.
On May 19, for his role in founding the disciplines of pediatric respiratory diseases and for his seminal contributions to the science and practice of pediatric respiratory medicine, Keens was awarded a Pediatric Founders Award by the Pediatric Scientific Assembly of the American Thoracic Society in a ceremony in Dallas.
Given to pioneers in the field, it is the assembly’s highest honor.
“I would say over the years I’ve gotten some awards,” he says, indicating a window sill burdened with honors before singling out the newest glass addition. “But this one, honestly, I’m just not convinced that I deserve it. I think, to some extent when you get awards it’s because you’re old.”
Those familiar with his work, however, would beg to differ.
While enrolled at University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine in 1968, Keens was randomly assigned to be advised by Dr. Gennaro M. Tisi, established a pulmonary physiology laboratory and was a principal in the schools’ NIH-sponsored fellowship training program.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Keens recalls of his first summer spent working for Tisi. “After that summer I knew I was going to do something pulmonary — I didn’t care what.”
His work and research as a resident at CHLA from 1972 to 1975, then as a fellow at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children until 1977, when he returned to CHLA full time and eventually bought a house with Susan in La Cañada, began to focus on pediatric respiratory conditions, including cystic fibrosis and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), about which not much was known.
Keens honed in on creating a home ventilation program that would allow young respiratory patients who previously clogged critical care units to be at home with their families. Over the years, the life expectancy for cystic fibrosis patients went from around 18 years to 48. Today, the home ventilation program is the largest in North America.
The physician’s work helped demystify SIDS, which in 1980 struck 153 out of every 100,000 babies in the U.S., compared to 35.4 in 2017, according to the American SIDS Institute.
“That’s a pretty big, important group of diseases,” says Dr. Cheryl Lew, a pediatric pulmonologist at CHLA who’s been a colleague of Keens’ for decades and attended medical school with him. “There are really few pediatric pulmonologists who are involved to the depths Tom has been.”
Daughter Jenny Franz, a fifth-grade teacher at La Cañada Elementary School, fondly recalls the times when as a young child, she served as the control in her father’s many studies. To date, he has co-authored 170 scientific research publications.
“I remember going in when I was 8 years old, running on a treadmill and being hooked up to all this equipment, having my breathing monitored,” Franz says. “I don’t know if I volunteered to do it or not — I guess it was just part of the deal.”
While these days retirement is a logistical possibility Keens, who now plays mentor to a host of fellows, wouldn’t dream of it.
“I love what I’m doing,” he says.