Former Georgetown University football quarterback Dr. David Fajgenbaum (NHS ’07) published a memoir Sept. 10 that follows his struggle with Castleman disease and his efforts to pioneer a cure.
In “Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race To Run Hope into Action,” Fajgenbaum recounts his experience being diagnosed with Castleman during his third year of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, his five near-fatal hospitalizations and ultimately his discovery of a drug to treat his disease.
Castleman disease is a rare disorder in which the body’s lymph nodes, an integral part of the immune system, overproduce cells, causing excessive inflammation which can lead to problems like organ failure and internal bleeding. Around 6,500 to 7,700 new cases are reported each year, and there are no known causes for the disease, according to the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network.
After reviewing his own medical charts, Fajgenbaum hypothesized that the immunosuppressant Sirolimus, which was already Food and Drug Administration-approved for use during kidney transplants, could counteract the damaging immune system response that Castleman triggers. His doctor prescribed him the drug in 2014. So far, the drug has worked for Fajgenbaum and hundreds of other patients suffering from Castleman disease.
Football head coach Rob Sgarlata, who coached Fajgenbaum during his time at Georgetown, said this dedication and talent were clear in Fajgenbaum both on and off the field.
“David was the consummate student-athlete: premed, top of his class,” Sgarlata said in an interview with The Hoya.
Fajgenbaum was diagnosed with Castleman in 2010, following an autoimmune attack that landed him in the hospital for five months. Over the next three years, Fajgenbaum was hospitalized four more times, according to CNN.
Despite his illness, Fajgenbaum graduated from medical school and co-founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, a global initiative dedicated to accelerating research and treatment for Castleman disease.
Fajgenbaum redefined the meaning of patient support, going above and beyond to help those with rare diseases, according to Megan Fisher (NHS ’21), who interned for the CDCN this past summer.
“David’s relentless pursuit for answers combined with his overwhelming compassion for Castleman patients is what makes the CDCN’s model so powerful,” Fisher wrote in an email to The Hoya. “He truly flipped the traditional research model on its head and was able to make incredible breakthroughs in a very short amount of time by traditional research standards.”
In addition to being a varsity athlete, Fajgenbaum was the student commencement speaker for the School of Nursing and Health Studies and a student governor on the Board of Governors, a group elected to manage Georgetown University Alumni Association’s strategy and affairs, according to his Linkedin. He was also a member of the Carroll Fellows Initiative, a selective program designed to prepare undergraduates for prestigious fellowships, jobs and other exit opportunities.
Fajgenbaum’s impressive and diverse involvement on campus reflected a level of maturity that surpassed that of his peers, Sgarlata said.
“He had a perspective on things that you don’t get from every college student that you encounter,” Sgarlata said. “He was a very unique student-athlete for us.”
Fajgenbaum was also the president of Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers, now called Actively Moving Forward, a grief support network and national nonprofit organization he founded after the death of his mother Anne Marie Fajgenbaum during his sophomore year at Georgetown. Since its founding, AMF has worked with over 3,000 students on over 200 college campuses throughout the United States.
Fajgenbaum was awarded with the Lena Landegger Community Service Award, an annual award created to honor those in the Georgetown community that have made a distinguished contribution to community service, according to the Georgetown football website.
Fajgenbaum now works as an adjunct assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the University of Pennsylvania and runs a laboratory which is currently enrolling patients in a clinical trial for a drug to treat Castleman disease. Fajgenbaum was also named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list in 2015.
Fajgenbaum is continuing his work with Castleman disease at the CDCN. By establishing a strategic research plan, building a collaborative network of Castleman researchers and raising awareness for the disease, Fajgenbaum has made it his life’s work to help the scientific community reach a better understanding of the causes of and treatment plans for Castleman disease, according to the CDCN website.
Fajgenbaum spoke at Georgetown’s 2017 senior convocation. In his speech, he expressed his hope that each student also finds something important one day to which they want to dedicate their lives.
“Find that thing that motivates you, that makes you passionate, and run after it,” Fajgenbaum said in his speech.