August 20, 2014

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci: A Man for Others, a Universal Treasure

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

As the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 1984, Dr. Anthony Fauci, an immunologist, is regularly invited on television for his expert information about infectious diseases.  Among the most visible and distinguished physicians in the world, he has spent his professional life in research, care of patients, and in public health policy.

The current national anxiety regards the deadly Ebola virus. Emotions run high. Dr. Fauci has been praised for his measured, rational voice of clarity, without the coloration of modifiers or personal judgment.  More about this below.

A Leader in the Making

Dr. Fauci was born and educated to help others. By profession, his mother was an educator and his father, a pharmacist. Both placed before him high academic ideals and rigorous work habits. As a youth, he was often seen on his bike delivering medicine to various sectors of the Bensonhurst community in Brooklyn, New York.

He and his sister Denise were educated first by the Sisters of St. Dominic at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School. Denise then attended high school at Fontbonne Hall Academy conducted by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  He attended Regis, an all-scholarship, all-boys’ Jesuit high school in Manhattan and then Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA, also Jesuit-run, where he was a pre-med student. At Regis, he studied four years of Latin, three of Greek, and two of French. Dr. Fauci recalls that “the Jesuits and lay teachers taught us how to formulate our thoughts. The phrase I still use is ‘precision of thought and economy of expression.’  Get your thoughts in order and express them succinctly so people know what you’re talking about . . . absolutely critical to my formative years,” he adds.   

“There was a certain spirit of scholarship at Holy Cross,” he recalls, “that was not matched in anything I’d experienced.  The idea of seriousness of purpose—I don’t mean nerdish seriousness—I mean the importance of personal development, scholarly development, and the high standards of integrity and principles that became part of everyday life at Holy Cross.  And that, I think, was passed down from the Jesuits and from the lay faculty to the students.” During the summer months, he worked in construction.

Fauci graduated first in his class at Cornell Medical College.  He has only praise for the Jesuit liberal arts education he received prior to attending Cornell. He credits a large part of his professional success to the inculcation of Jesuit intellectual rigor, the core of Jesuit education, an emphasis on organization and logic, on succinctness and clarity of expression.  The integration of science and the humanities has proved useful in his dual role as physician and researcher, blending compassion with medical expertise (Donald N.S. Unger, “I saw people in pain,” Holy Cross Magazine, 2002). 

Dealing with Controversy: Anthrax and AIDS

Dr. Fauci began his medical career at the NIH in 1968. Shortly after his appointment as its director in 1984, he encountered the raging controversy over the HIV-AIDS virus. No position was fraught with more difficulty. The AIDS community—those who were infected with the virus and their support groups—lashed out their anger.  The new director became the target of their rage.

But even before this, he was one of the most visible government officials who publicly discussed the threats posed by anthrax and other possible bio-terror weapons.  “His is the timbre of voice that one wants to hear in that sort of atmosphere:  calm, reassuring, but not falsely so.  He spoke the facts and had a credible record of speaking the truth under difficult circumstances” (Unger).   

The HIV epidemic erupted in virulent activism.  From San Francisco to Greenwich Village to Hollywood, those infected with the deadly disease for which there was no treatment demanded participation in decision-making with the physicians and scientists.  People screamed, yelled, cursed at authorities.  “I saw people who were in pain, and I was very moved by the pain,” he recalls.  Boy, they must really be hurting for them to do this.  And I think I conveyed that to them, and they saw that that’s how I was feeling toward them.  That began a relationship over many years that allowed me to walk amongst them.  It was really interesting; they let me into their camp.  I went to gay baths houses and spoke to them . . . and I discussed the problems they were having, the degree of suffering that was going on in the community, the need for them to get involved in clinical trials, since there were no other possibilities for them to get access to drugs.  And I earned their confidence.”  Over the course of those years, Dr. Fauci connected with the HIV community.  He was responsible for having the FDA reverse its position on banning certain protocols for the virus. 

Much has been written about Dr. Fauci’s long and successful tenure at the NIH. “And what he has accomplished over the course of his war on AIDS is nothing short of amazing:  he has managed to build a bridge between deeply antagonistic constituencies, working all the while under the relentless glare of media scrutiny. And he has built that bridge using the tools he spent a lifetime cultivating—a tireless work ethic, a scrupulous honesty, and an abiding sense of compassion” (Unger).

Dr. Fauci’s Winning Temperament

Dr. Fauci is blessed with a first-class temperament crowning his other achievements.  This, despite his own admission of being a perfectionist.   Some years ago at the height of the AIDS controversy, I listened to him delivering a lecture. In the Q&A, one person after the other lashed out at him. Quick to size up, deliberate to respond, this preppy-looking physician answered calmly and without condescension. His style: cool. Later he observed that the audience was lashing out at everyone and not at him in particular.  He had walked with them in their pain.  He absorbed their pain.

Wasn’t this Christ’s way?  And what of St. Luke, the physician, whose gospel is permeated with compassion for the most vulnerable?

A First-Class Temperament

Who has a first-class temperament, and what is it?  In politics, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ronald Reagan, and Nelson Mandela are said to head that short list.  How does one realize a first-class temperament, particularly in dealing with others? First, value silence, reflection, academics, and good reading to build the basic principles that will guide your life. Second, in encountering the other, listen well.  Be open.  This individual may have something worthwhile to share with you. Third, as you listen, don’t calculate or formulate a pre-conceived response or reaction.  Avoid gamesmanship. Fourth, respond as honestly as you can—without rancor, even if the other individual irritates you.  Nothing repels more than a nasty disposition which engages in ridicule, sarcasm, and barbed attacks.  Fifth, if you have greater knowledge of a discipline, be modest when sharing it; after all, it’s a gift. Finally, if you’re a perfectionist, be aware that you probably don’t suffer fools very well.

Contributing Factors to a Winning Temperament: Family

Family is the basic building block of temperament.  Family shapes how one is raised.  By definition, Italian families are closely-knit communities.  Fathers may be demanding figures, even domineering ones, but we Italians know that mother is the mother who rules the roost!   
In Sicilian, the word fauci means sickle, a short-handled farming tool with a semi-circular blade used to cut grain for harvesting, and to lop or trim where necessary. Doctor Fauci is well named.

Education in the Humanities

The right kind of education builds character.  In Anthony Fauci’s education, reading and studying Greek and Roman culture, philosophy, literature and other humanities have been the best preparation for his service in medicine. Why is this?  In the classics, one learns vicariously what it means to be a human person. The humanities are associated with depth, richness, character and moral development; they deal with thoughts, emotions, actions, and accountability.  Philosophy debates the most important issues before humankind and is always consciously related to ethical and religious values.  The humanities are not for the elite but for everyone.    This is why more and more charter schools are reading, studying, and performing classic masterworks.

Wise Choices

In an interview with NPR in 2005, Dr. Fauci revealed his overall goal of choosing a life of public service; it encompassed a few non-negotiable basics.  “My job is a gift which allows me to try and help alleviate the suffering of humankind.”  As steps leading up to this purpose, he continues, “First, I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge—something I learned with a bit of tough love from my Jesuit education first at Regis High School and then at Holy Cross College.  I consider myself a perpetual student. Second, I believe in striving for excellence.  I sweat the big and the small stuff!  I do not apologize for this. Third, as a physician, my goal is to serve mankind.”  Dr. Fauci’s devotion to his mission of helping others deserves as much respect as for his grasp of learning. Perhaps, even more so.

Needed:  More Winning Temperaments

‘The Church grows through the beauty of its members and not by proselytizing.’  If what our Pontiffs say is true, and it is, then Dr. Fauci’s inspiration cannot be measured.   In fact, the beauty of such a life is the surest and most persuasive occasion to form disciples of the Lord and build a better world.  God’s love shines out from those who, of themselves, are unaware of God’s limitless power working in their lives for good.  So it is with Anthony Fauci, a man for others, a universal treasure.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected]net.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.