The stranger in a hazmat suit who personally cared for Ms. Pham six years ago is now the country’s most known and recognizable doctor: Anthony Fauci.
“I just remember him being such a calming presence,” she said in an interview. “The fact that he was so confident gave me the strength and confidence in myself that I was going to beat this.”
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2020 was the year that millions of Americans became familiar with Dr. Fauci’s bedside manner. It started with the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases hearing reports of a mysterious, novel type of coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China. It ended with him getting injected on camera to vouch for a vaccine developed with miraculous speed.
Dr. Fauci had priority in part because there was at least one thing about his life that didn’t change this year: The country’s most famous bureaucrat is still a practicing doctor.
As he rolled up his sleeve days before his 80th birthday on Thursday, Dr. Fauci explained why he was getting vaccinated. He wanted the public to feel “extreme confidence” that it was safe, he said. He also needed the shot to do his job. He remains an attending physician in the NIH Clinical Center treating patients two or three days a week.
As many put their faith in Dr. Fauci, citing his experience over four decades helping navigate the country through AIDS, bioterrorism, Ebola, swine flu and infectious disease outbreaks that could have been health crises, others resented his popularity and balked at his messaging. He was periodically sidelined by President Trump and vilified by the president’s most ardent supporters to the point that he required security.
“I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” Dr. Fauci told Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) during a bitter congressional hearing in May. “I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence.”
The key to understanding Dr. Fauci was one easily overlooked word in that response: physician.
“He always said to me that the most important thing to him was taking care of patients,” said John Gallin, the NIH Clinical Center’s longtime director. “He thought the privilege of helping people when they were sick was the most rewarding and the very last thing he would ever give up.”
The pandemic so consumed Dr. Fauci that he has taken breaks from his rounds since March. But for most of the past nine months—in between coronavirus task force briefings, countless media appearances and the occasional Instagram chat with a celebrity—Dr. Fauci made time to see patients in the hospital. Some of them had severe cases of the disease that he was also battling outside the hospital.
“Every once in a while, usually when I’m driving home alone or when I’m on a run with my wife, I say to myself: Boy, do I wish I was back in the emergency room taking care of patients,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview earlier this year. “That’s such an important part of my identity.”
This balance he’s maintained between research and clinical work is the defining characteristic of his career. For as long as he’s been at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, even before he was the director, Dr. Fauci has believed that treating one patient can help treat many patients. It’s a lesson that was drilled into him early in his career.
“We were able to do something that people said you can’t do: You can’t do clinical medicine at the same time that you do very basic research,” he once told an NIH historian about his first influential work. “That is absolutely incorrect.”
This philosophy made Dr. Fauci something of a medical outlier. His breed of clinical investigator was once called an “endangered species” in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine—and that was in the 1970s. You could be a clinician or a scientist, according to conventional wisdom, but not both.
Dr. Fauci disagreed. He was so committed to pursuing both that he refused to drop his practice when he became the NIAID director. And he made it clear in the early, frenzied days of this pandemic that he planned to resume his regularly scheduled rounds on Wednesdays and Fridays as soon as possible. Then he did.
“To have Tony Fauci as your doctor,” said Steven Sharfstein, the president emeritus of Maryland’s Sheppard Pratt Health System, “you were lucky.”
Dr. Sharfstein, who rounded daily with Dr. Fauci in the early 1980s, remembers him openly weeping over the death of one young AIDS patient they had been treating. His colleagues say Dr. Fauci has never forgotten that people are not data. “They were more than just numbers in a study,” Dr. Sharfstein said.
One of his many patients in a half-century of navigating outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics was Nina Pham, a nurse in Dallas, Texas, who helped care for a man who died of Ebola in October 2014. Two days later, her fever spiked. Get her to the NIH, said Dr. Fauci.
Ms. Pham was isolated in the hospital’s Special Clinical Studies Unit, a biocontainment facility built after the Sept. 11 attacks, and there was fear in the air when she arrived. As the Medicare-eligible director of the institute, Dr. Fauci wasn’t a natural choice to care for an Ebola patient. But to him it was a no-brainer.
“I did not like the idea of asking my staff to put themselves at risk of getting infected if I wasn’t willing to do it myself,” he once said.
Dr. Fauci went out of his way to make her family comfortable in deeply uncomfortable times, she said. Before others his age had to be taught how to Zoom, he learned FaceTime so they could be in regular communication. He still emails regularly with patients from the 1970s—even with his inbox swamped in 2020. But the most reassuring thing he did for Ms. Pham happened before she remembers meeting him. Not long after Ms. Pham was admitted, Dr. Fauci shared a message with the world: He predicted that she would be an Ebola survivor.
Eight days after she was rolled into the hospital, Ms. Pham walked out with a hug from Dr. Fauci.
“I trusted him with my life,” Ms. Pham said, “and I would do it again.”
But even when she was discharged, as Dr. Fauci promised, her doctor weren’t done with her. A few months after the Ebola scare, a report on Ms. Pham, who is now a clinical consultant for an insurance broker, appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Dr. Fauci was one of the authors.
His team had collected enough data on her case to spin a dire hospitalization into scientific knowledge. They saved lives while learning how to save more lives.
“That’s essentially what we do here,” Dr. Fauci said.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.