Daring Tho' Skies Be Dark
As New York City, the United States, and the world have followed the spread of COVID-19, the Regis High School community has drawn hope and inspiration from the leading role played by Dr. Anthony Fauci ’58 in our country’s efforts to combat the virus. The longtime Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has previously guided the public health community’s efforts against AIDS, Ebola, and Zika, but never before has his expertise, humility, and resolve been so apparent to so many.

“I have heard from many Regis alumni, students, parents, and friends who, like me, are so grateful for and comforted by Dr. Fauci’s servant leadership during these turbulent times,” Regis President Rev. Daniel K. Lahart, SJ, said. “I encourage the Regis community to remember in the charity of their prayers this Regian along with all those in the Regis family and beyond who have been impacted by this disease or who, like Dr. Fauci, have heeded the call to serve others in the midst of this pandemic.”

Dr. Fauci is certainly not alone. So many Regis alumni inside the healthcare industry and beyond have nobly dedicated themselves to the greater good during this historic moment. The stories of these Men for Others are many. A small sampling, representative of countless more, is offered here.

When Chris Wierzbicki ’83 received a 3-D printer as a Christmas gift from his son, Christopher Buonincontri ’04, last year, he could not have imagined what a big part of his life the device soon would become.

Shortly after COVID-19 upended life in New York, Wierzbicki, a 7th-grade Math teacher, decided to try to make a protective mask with the printer. His first attempt took six-and-a-half hours to print and yielded an uncomfortable product. After more research and testing led to a better design, he posted in a neighborhood Facebook group asking if any fellow Howard Beach residents wanted a mask.

The positive responses came quickly. On his first day of distribution, he gave out three masks. The next day, it was seven more. Soon, Wierzbicki knew he had to manufacture these products for a population beyond his neighbors.

“It was really such a calling for me,” Wierzbicki said of his decision to start mass-producing face shields and donating them to healthcare workers. “I felt such a need to do it.”

First, he needed more printers. A Regis classmate funded the second one, and Wierzbicki’s Howard Beach neighbors followed suit and purchased more for the cause. He soon outgrew his house and moved the operation into a local dance studio that had closed its doors to customers due to the pandemic. Eventually, Wierzbicki had 14 printers running in the studio, two in his home, and another four in some of his fellow teachers’ houses. At full capacity, Wierzbicki and his fellow volunteers could produce almost 200 masks each day.

Word quickly got out on social media and at local hospitals about the selfless teacher pumping out face shields that by many accounts were superior to those commercially available. Wierzbicki made them all available at no cost. Healthcare workers or hospital representatives just needed to contact him by email or over Facebook, let him know how many they needed, and he would leave the masks in a bag with the person’s name on it on his front porch.

To keep up with the growing demand, he slept four hours per night and would arrive at the dance studio at 4:00 a.m. to begin the day’s production.

“When you’re doing something that you know is right, you might be tired, but it’s a good tired,” Wierzbicki said. “I would really just be thankful to God that I was in a position to be of help to so many who were putting their lives at risk to help all of those that were suffering through the pandemic.”

Like many alumni, Wierzbicki said Regis helped instill in him a calling to serve others. When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, a piece of his service will return to his alma mater. When he no longer needs them, Wierzbicki’s 3-D printers will be donated to schools — with one already tapped to find a permanent home on 84th Street.

As the emergency-medicine chief resident at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center & Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Chris Reisig ’00 has played a leading role on the front lines as New York hospitals swelled with COVID-19 patients this spring.

Dr. Reisig, who taught English at Regis for six years before attending Weill Medical College of Cornell University, was one of a small group of “everyday heroes” profiled in Men’s Health and other Hearst Magazines publications.

“I’m a little anxious when I’m heading in to work,” Dr. Reisig said in the piece. “You know, I think your nerves get to you when you’re not doing something. But I found that, for the most part, when I get to work — it’s a familiar place, it’s a place I’ve been for years at this point, it’s the people I know, it’s the same things that I’ve done every day before this. And so the longer I manage the shift, the more relaxed I tend to be, just because it’s familiar. But that clock kind of resets every day, too.”

Dr. Reisig and his wife, Regis History Department Chair Gena Reisig, who transformed her own day-to-day to ensure that her students continued learning and felt supported, live with their children in Manhattan.

“Outside of work, I’m very lucky to have a family who has stayed with me in the city,” Dr. Reisig told Hearst. “So my life outside of work is where I recharge as much as possible just being with my wife and my kids.”

At the onset of the pandemic, when the Archdiocese of New York needed priests to minister to the growing number of sick and dying Catholics in hospitals and nursing homes, Rev. Louis Masi ’09 volunteered.

Along with another young and healthy priest, Fr. Masi moved into an empty retreat house in Dutchess County and lived in complete isolation, only leaving his new home to visit patients.

Initially, they faced significant resistance from hospitals and nursing homes who wouldn’t let them in out of a fear that the priests would spread the virus to others and out of a reluctance to give any personal protective equipment (PPE) to visitors. In some cases, Fr. Masi resorted to offering blessings and absolution to patients through hospital windows.

“It’s one thing to take care of the body. It’s another thing to take care of the soul. We priests are there to prepare the person for death and to prepare their soul for death,” Fr. Masi said. “It’s been heartbreaking. I know many people who have died who were not able to have priests come.”

After building relationships with relevant hospital administrators and securing their own supply of PPE through the Archdiocese, the two priests gained access to three hospitals and about six nursing homes. They spent weeks visiting very ill Catholics, hearing their Confession, offering Communion, and Anointing the Sick. The hospital patients and nursing home residents they ministered to — some dying of the virus and others dying from other causes — were suffering without the comfort of their families by their sides.

“One of the things we were able to give them, in addition to the sacraments, was the knowledge that they weren’t alone,” Fr. Masi said. “Because a lot of people did feel abandoned.”

As the surge of hospitalizations began to subside, Fr. Masi returned to St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Fishkill, where he has served as parochial vicar since July 2019. Fr. Masi continues to visit patients in the hospital in need of the sacraments while also helping to serve his parishioners as they struggle with the distance from the Church brought on by the pandemic.

“This is a time when people are looking for answers to larger questions and are looking for the assurance of faith a whole lot more,” Fr. Masi said. “Taking the faith away from them at this point exacerbates the difficulties that they’re already experiencing.”

As the New York region continues to cope with life during the pandemic, Fr. Masi and his fellow priests at St. Mary’s are working hard to provide digital content and resources, reach out to all of the members of their parish, and support those who especially depend on the Church for material as well as spiritual needs.

Dr. Rob Brochin ’07 had almost finished his residency in orthopaedic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

A few months from moving on to a fellowship at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Brochin, like so many other doctors, suddenly found himself redeployed to help deal with the overwhelming volume of COVID-19 patients coming into the Manhattan hospital. Instead of his normal steady routine of surgeries, Dr. Brochin began working night shifts in the internal medicine unit.

“Every day for the past five years I have thought about ankle fractures, herniated discs, and rotator cuff tears,” Dr. Brochin said. “I had never been responsible for managing things like end-stage renal disease, cirrhosis, or aortic fibrillation at baseline, let alone in patients with a novel and incompletely understood viral infection.”

On the evening of April 18, Dr. Brochin needed help. A patient had a newly positive blood culture that perhaps indicated a bacterial infection on top of COVID-19, and Dr. Brochin didn’t feel he had the experience necessary to decide whether to begin antibiotics and which drug to choose. He felt bad bothering perhaps the most overworked doctor in the hospital, but he decided he had to page the infectious disease fellow.

Dr. Brochin immediately smiled when he read the name of the specialist on-call: Dr. Vincent de Chavez ’07. He quickly sent a page: “Vince! It’s Rob from Regis, call me back!”

The classmates hadn’t seen or spoken to one another since graduating from Regis in 2007, and their paths had not crossed while working in the same hospital system for the past several years. Dr. de Chavez, who is in the last year of his fellowship at Mount Sinai and will soon begin practice at Staten Island University Hospital, answered Dr. Brochin’s questions and helped him make the best decisions for the patient. “I frequently relied on Vince for answers in Mr. Watson’s calculus class, and now after over a decade without talking, the first thing I ask him for is more answers,” Dr. Brochin joked.

The two met in person the next day to catch up about each other’s lives since leaving 84th Street. For these two doctors, the reunion was a bright spot in the middle of the most chaotic, stressful period in their young medical careers.

When news broke on March 21 that David Lat ’92 had been placed on a ventilator, the legal world — and many in the Regis community — reacted with shock and concern.

A prominent legal recruiter and the founder of Above the Law, an influential website covering the legal industry, Lat was a former marathoner. Beyond a mild history of exercise-induced asthma, he had no health problems. In the early days of the pandemic in the United States, Lat did not at all fit the description of someone who might not survive a COVID-19 infection.

After first suffering symptoms earlier that month, Lat was admitted to NYU Langone on March 16. He shared the news of his infection and hospitalization with his large social media following, urging anyone he had been in contact with recently to get tested. Lat continued to offer digital updates on his status for a few days before going silent.

Thanks to the efforts of his medical team at NYU Langone, Lat came off the ventilator after six days and was released from the hospital on April 2. While he still had a long recovery ahead of him, Lat immediately set out to do what he could to help others.

He donated plasma to NYU Langone for a study that sought to identify a treatment for the virus. Perhaps even more significantly, he lent his significantly hoarse voice — his time on the ventilator damaged his vocal cords — to raise awareness about the disease. Lat appeared on the “Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” and various other television shows and podcasts to discuss his experience and warn other seemingly healthy people to take the threat of infection seriously.

“I think my openness about my COVID-19 ordeal has reassured others with the disease, as well as their friends and family, that they are not alone,” Lat said. “I have heard from so many other people — friends, family, and strangers — who have also struggled with COVID-19, and we have been able to support each other. I have also tried to communicate to the public that COVID-19 needs to be taken seriously and shouldn’t be dismissed as something that only the elderly or infirm need to worry about.”

Just days after his release from the hospital, Lat authored a column for The Washington Post raising awareness about the critical importance of ventilators at a time when many hospitals worried they didn’t have enough. “Many patients with serious cases of COVID-19 suffer respiratory failure and will die if they can’t be connected to ventilators,” Lat wrote in the piece, which was one of the most read articles on the Post’s website for several days. “I should know. ... I would not be here today without a ventilator.”

The article also highlighted the ongoing medical challenges often faced by those fortunate enough to come off ventilators alive. While Lat continues to recuperate, he also continues his advocacy and support. His social media feeds remain very active with stories, news, and analysis about the pandemic — a most welcome sight to all those who worried about his well-being during those silent days in late March.

As a fellow in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Duke University Hospital, Dr. Luke Gatta ’08 didn’t experience the same rush of COVID-19 patients as his colleagues in New York and other hard-hit areas. But Gatta had two pregnant women with serious complications from COVID-19 under his care, both of whom needed to be intubated in the Intensive Care Unit.

In the first case, the mother delivered a baby boy while still unconscious through an emergency C-section. “Our nursing staff has been taking him, in his almost-laughable oversized protective gear, to his unconscious mother in the ICU,” Gatta said. “They take him there to breastfeed. It is a poignant scene to watch her vital signs physiologically react to his latching.”

After two months in the hospital, the mother recovered and was released, holding her young son for the first time outside the hospital.

The other patient ended up in the ICU early in her pregnancy, and Gatta and his colleagues initially worried that she had developed a serious brain injury due to a lack of oxygen. After careful care, at the time of this writing, she remains in the ICU but is otherwise healthy.

Gatta said that these experiences prompted him to reflect on how his time at Regis continues to shape his life.

“It’s the Jesuit humanism,” Gatta says. “Medicine has become an extension of the Jesuit mission. While I could define cura personalis then as a high school senior in Fr. Andreassi’s theology class, it was through pursuing medicine that I realized that cura personalis now defines us.”

Since COVID-19 arrived in the United States, Dr. Fauci’s face has appeared practically everywhere, from television screens and newspaper front pages to t-shirts and even doughnuts. There’s only one place, though, where you’ll find an image of Regis’ most prominent graduate shooting laser beams out of his eyes at coronavirus.

It’s the brainchild — and an attempt to lend a hand in the fight against COVID-19 — of one of Dr. Fauci’s fellow Regians, Alex Patterson ’99. In 2017, he founded Beat The Bomb, a Brooklyn-based two-to-six-player live immersive video game experience, where teams must disarm a paint bomb or ultimately get blasted by it. (Patterson describes the experience as a cross between “Mission Impossible” and the 1980s TV show “Double Dare.”)

Forced to close his business during the pandemic, Patterson looked for ways to help. He donated Beat The Bomb’s large supply of PPE — more than 6,000 full-body protective suits, 4,500 gloves, and 85 face shields — to be used in local hospitals. These resources are essential to his business, as players wear the protective gear in case they fail and get covered in paint. Beat The Bomb will have to completely restock its supply when it eventually re-opens. While some friends encouraged him to hold onto the resources for the sake of his business, Patterson couldn’t. “Morally, how can you keep it on your shelves?”

Looking to put its gaming expertise to good use, Patterson’s team launched Fauci’s Revenge, the online, retro-style game that allows players to fire lasers from Dr. Fauci’s eyes at images of the virus while maintaining proper social distancing. The game, along with accompanying Beat The Virus t-shirts, encouraged fans to donate to a GoFundMe account Patterson set up, with all the proceeds going to New York hospitals.

As of late May, Patterson has raised more than $7,000 for COVID-19 relief. Fauci’s Revenge grew in popularity, garnering heaps of local news coverage in New York and spawning a highly competitive tournament that Patterson’s staff oversaw. On the evening of the final round of the tournament, Patterson received a brief email of thanks from Dr. Fauci himself, who had been informed of the Beat The Bomb CEO’s charitable efforts by Regis President Fr. Daniel K. Lahart, SJ.

While Patterson hopes Beat The Bomb will open its doors soon and resume its normal business, Fauci’s Revenge will outlive the quarantine: Patterson is now partnering with a local afterschool program that uses the game as a fun way to teach its students about social distancing.

When the President and CEO of Jefferson Health sent a message to the entire Philadelphia-based health care system identifying Dr. John Zurlo ’75 as one of a small group of unsung heroes in the fight against COVID-19, it was the last portion of the tribute that meant the most to Dr. Zurlo.

“Dr. Zurlo is Jefferson’s Anthony Fauci,” the announcement read. “He trained under Dr. Fauci and they went to the same Catholic boys’ school in New York.”

A former pupil of Dr. Fauci’s at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Zurlo holds few people in as high esteem as he does his fellow Regian and infectious disease expert. And, like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Zurlo has drawn on his decades of experience to provide desperately-needed leadership and guidance during this unprecedented health crisis.

It’s not exactly the role Dr. Zurlo expected to fill when he accepted an academic position at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after a successful 28-year career at Hershey Medical Center, where he directed the HIV/AIDS program. As Division Chief in Infectious Diseases, he has been thrust into a leadership role for the entire Jefferson Health system, overseeing medical treatment strategies and safety precautions for 14 hospitals and 36,000 employees while also treating patients. He has a regular, featured speaking slot on the health care system’s daily Zoom calls to offer an infectious disease update.

“Each day I discuss the issues of the day regarding policy modifications, updates to treatment guidelines, and epidemiological assessments,” Dr. Zurlo said. “But I also take the time to infuse a sense of hope to my community focusing on what we have learned and what our path may be for the future.”

As he does this critical work, Dr. Zurlo draws on lessons he learned decades ago from Dr. Fauci. After graduating from Regis, Manhattan College, and Albany Medical School, he worked as an infectious disease fellow at NIAID, where he regularly interacted with and worked under Dr. Fauci. The two doctors bonded over their shared high school alma mater and have remained friendly over the years, occasionally running into each other at conferences. Dr. Zurlo remembers being so impressed with Dr. Fauci’s tremendous work ethic and dedication to public service, qualities he has sought to emulate throughout his medical career and especially over the last several months.

“Tony embodies what all of us should strive to become. He embodies the spirit of Regis,” Dr. Zurlo said. “I can only hope to live up to his model of selflessness. I have never been more proud to be a Regian.”

Posted: 6/27/20