In November of 2010, David Fajgenbaum, MD, was hospitalized. He was so close to death’s door that his last rites were actually read to him. Nearly five years later, he stood center stage this past Sunday, delivering a heart-felt speech to fellow members of Wharton’s 2015 graduating class.
In his speech, Fajgenbaum—who is one of Poets&Quants best of the Class of 2015–spoke about Castleman disease (CD), the rare, but very deadly, illness that has nearly claimed his life on more than one occasion. Sixteen full months since his last relapse, his message to graduating students on Sunday was this: “Find your Castleman disease and go after it.”
FROM TREATING PATIENTS TO BEING ONE
David’s journey with CD began while he was attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was in my third year and went from being healthy and treating patients of my own to being critically ill in the intensive care unit of the very hospital I’d been studying in.”
Early symptoms included night sweats and fatigue. But as the illness progressed, David’s condition became increasingly severe. Along with liver and kidney failure, he gained 70 pounds of fluid and experienced blindness in one eye. When it was all said-and-done, David was hospitalized for four months during a six-month period. He’d been treated with seven different chemotherapy drugs, received multiple blood transfusions and underwent treatment with various experimental medicines.
“I was literally on my death bed.” Yet he survived. And he even returned to medical school after a full year of sick leave.
MANY OF THE BIGGEST HEALTH ISSUES ARE BUSINESS ISSUES
Admittedly, it wasn’t until he relapsed 15 months later that he got serious about CD and began leading the charge for successful treatment of the disease. “When I relapsed, I was blown away that the doctors couldn’t answer anything about this disease,” Fajgenbaum says. “What I quickly realized is that there was absolutely no collaboration in medical research about CD, no strategy, everyone was working in silos. Just a total mess.”
To make sense of the mess, Fajgenbaum sought out to obtain an MBA. “I decided to go to business school because the greatest hurdles to driving research were that there was no overarching strategy among doctors and researchers and no collaboration. But countless inefficiencies. These are all business problems that people in other industries deal with all the time. So I decided to do the MBA in an attempt to speed up my recovery and, ultimately, to save my life.”
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