He Cured His Own Disease
Reader's Digest UK|February 2022
A medical student battling a deadly disorder finally got a lifeline—from his own research
By Ryan Prior. Photographs by Peter Murray, Openings spread, Payton Williams, David Fajgenbaum, Peter Murray

IT WAS JUST after Christmas 2013, and David Fajgenbaum was hovering near death.

He lay in a hospital bed at the University of Arkansas, his blood platelet count so low that even a slight bump to his body could trigger a lethal brain bleed. A doctor told him to write his living will on a piece of paper.

David was rushed to a CT scan. Tears streamed down his face and fell on his hospital gown. He thought about the first patient who’d died under his care in medical school and how her brain had bled in a similar way from a stroke.

He didn’t believe he’d survive the scan. But he did.

David was battling Castleman disease, a rare autoimmune disorder involving immune cells attacking vital organs. It wasn’t the first time a relapse had threatened his life. Massive “shock and awe” chemotherapy regimens had helped him narrowly escape death during four previous attacks, but each new assault on his body weakened him.

“You learn a lot by almost dying,” he says.

He learned enough to surprise his doctors by coming up with a way to treat his disease. Six years later, he’s in remission, he and his wife have a baby girl, and he’s devoting his medical career to saving other patients like him.

As a boy in North Carolina, US, David spent his Saturdays watching the North Carolina State Wolfpack American football team with his dad, the team’s doctor.

At age seven, he was obsessed with becoming an elite athlete. In school, he would wake up at 5am to run. The walls of his bedroom were covered with American football play charts.

He achieved his dream, making the Georgetown University football team as a quarterback. But in 2004, during his second year his mother died of a brain tumour.

David's obsessive focus deepened, helping him learn to appreciate life’s precious moments and understand that bad things happen to good people. “I know people far more worthy of miracles than I am who haven’t gotten them,” he says. David founded a support group for grieving students at Georgetown called Students of AMF—an acronym for Ailing Mothers and Fathers, as well as his mother’s initials (Reader’s Digest wrote about his group in 2008).

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