A family heritage of activism molds a passion for the University of Cincinnati’s COVID-19 expert
s a budding acoustic guitarist growing up in the 1960s, Carl Fichtenbaum says he didn’t plan to be the next Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley.
“I grew up more with people like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie. Those were who my family listened to,” says Fichtenbaum. “I grew up going to a lot of protest marches where Peter, Paul and Mary were.”
More than 50 years later, Fichtenbaum, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and one of the leaders in UC’s efforts to combat COVID-19, is still going to protest marches as his passion for social justice, personally and professionally, burns as brightly as ever.
A product of his environment
Growing up the youngest of three children in New Haven, Connecticut, Fichtenbaum says his parents were active in various protest movements in the turbulent times of the 1960s. His mother worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency designed to protect people from discrimination in the workplace.
“My parents were tremendous advocates for social justice,” says Fichtenbaum. “That made a huge impact on my life. They wanted a better world.”
Leo and Myrna Fichtenbaum wanted a better world for everyone, not just for their own family. They were one of five families who filed a lawsuit to end segregation in the New Haven schools in 1968. When Leo was a little boy in the 1930s, he would go to baseball games handing out pamphlets calling for the breaking of the color barrier, which Jackie Robinson finally did in 1947.
The pride and admiration Fichtenbaum has for his father is evident in his eyes and in his voice when he talks about Leo, who didn’t let his family’s economic struggles negatively impact his desire to be a good student — Leo excelled in high school. With the advent of World War II, he enlisted in the Army.
“When he joined the Army he was given an aptitude test and tested to be a doctor,” Fichtenbaum says of his father. “He could have gone to medical school, but then D-Day happened — ‘All hands on deck.’ My father landed on Omaha Beach, D-Day plus one [June 7, 1944, his 20th birthday] where he was wounded. He fought in the European theater all the way to the Rhine River to meet the Russians. My father was in the Battle of the Bulge, fighting in Europe for a long time. Only three members of his platoon came back.”
UC’s Fichtenbaum was first exposed to health care as a profession by his father who organized one of the first neighborhood health centers in the United States in the 1960s. The undersecretary for health in the Johnson administration, George Sauer, a Yale graduate, wanted his hometown of New Haven to have a health center. Carl says his father was up to the challenge of organizing a health center in a predominantly black neighborhood where previously no health care had been available. As part of that experience, Carl recalls working in a soup kitchen with members of the Black Panthers when police showed up in full riot gear, which he says was scary for a little kid.
When Leo’s boss who started the health centers in New Haven moved to St. Louis, Missouri, Leo followed to open up health centers there, which would be the closest he ever got to living his dream of being a doctor. In his junior year in high school in St. Louis, Carl stunned his parents by telling them he no longer was interested in being a professional musician.
“I said I want to help people, and told them, ‘I think I want to be a doctor,’” Fichtenbaum says. “I think they almost fell out of their chairs. They thought I was going to be, in their vaudevillian terms, ‘a song and dance man.’”
Turning his attention and talents towards HIV
Instead of hitting the road to pursue a career as a musician, Fichtenbaum hit the books, doing his undergraduate studies and medical school at the University of Missouri in the mid-1980s and then returned to Connecticut to do his residency at Bridgeport Hospital. That’s where he found himself on the front lines of the fight against HIV.
“I have a mission in life to help people and when I was in medical school, people were running the other way. Doctors didn’t want to take care of people with HIV and I consider that a social justice issue,” Fichtenbaum says. “I saw the discrimination. I just said, ‘I’m going to take care of people with HIV and I’m going to see us find an answer for this.’ So that’s what I dedicated my life to.”
Fichtenbaum recalls people disowned by their families because they were gay and had HIV. “They were dying and no one was there to hold their hand,” he says. “So I would hold their hand, I would bring in my guitar and sing.”
Fichtenbaum still believes in the soothing power of music and he used his musical talents during the COVID-19 pandemic by hosting “Quarantunes” concerts on Facebook most Saturday evenings. He organized a group of doctors and other medical professionals in the UC College of Medicine with a variety of musical talents to perform the hour-long concerts.
“People were very despondent, people were very down and I always have known music as a wonderful outlet,” he says. “I wanted to make a difference for the community because I knew people couldn’t go out to their local bar and hear music. You’re stuck in your home so why not have a little bit of joy? Just a little slice of happiness in a world that doesn’t seem very happy.”
After doing his medical fellowship and getting on faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, he headed to Cincinnati because of his family’s desire to stay in the Midwest. Fichtenbaum came to UC in 1999 to work with Peter Frame, MD, who founded the HIV program at the College of Medicine. He arrived at UC with the same social justice mission he had in medical school.
Jaasiel Chapman works closely with Fichtenbaum as a clinical community education coordinator in the College of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases.
“I met Carl while working for an HIV nonprofit,” Chapman says. “The first thing that struck me about him was how in tune he was to the community that he was serving. He embodies an empathetic passion for those in underrepresented populations.”
Chapman says when a research position opened up in the Infectious Disease Center at UC, Fichtenbaum was adamant that the position be filled by a representative of the population being recruited for the study. Chapman was hired and he says being able to work so closely with Fichtenbaum has allowed him the special opportunity of getting to know who he really is.
“People come into this line of work for many different reasons,” Chapman says. “Carl was brought up to be in the position that he is in today. He once told me stories about how his parents would pull him in his wagon, as a kid growing up on the East Coast, as they marched for civil rights. That social justice mindset is still very much who he is today. He tailors the clinic to be culturally competent in all aspects. He understands the population that we serve and does his best to ensure that all of our patients and staff feel welcomed and seen.”
Confronting a pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged early in 2020, Fichtenbaum says it took him back to his early days of battling HIV.
“Health care providers were as scared then about HIV as they are taking care of people with COVID-19 now,” he says. “We were doing HIV studies and trying to enroll people and some of this reminds me of what it was like then. COVID-19 is a much higher level of activity than I’ve ever been involved in professionally. You’re trying hard to make a difference as quickly as possible knowing how serious this could be with millions of lives possibly at stake if we don’t make the right decisions.”
In one of the first of what would become many media interviews about COVID19, a local TV reporter asked Fichtenbaum if she should refer to him as “doctor” or “Carl.”
“I’ll tell you what I tell my patients,” he replied. “Please call me ‘Carl.’ If it makes you more comfortable to call me ‘doctor’, that’s fine, but I’m a person just like you. I just happen to have training that might help you feel better.”
When asked where that lack of pretense comes from, he says it goes back to his grandma Helen, Leo’s mom. She came to the United States when she was seven, leaving behind abject poverty in Poland where Jews were not welcome and were being beaten. Fichtenbaum describes her as a dynamic human being with a larger-than-life personality.
“My grandmother always said, ‘You must be the best you can possibly be, but never boastful about what you do. You work as hard as you possibly can and others will know that you are a good person and you’re reliable in what you do,’” Fichtenbaum says.
“That’s where it comes from, it comes from her,” he says. “She was an advocate in her community and fighter for social justice.”
He says one time grandma Helen chained herself to the door of an apartment to prevent the police from evicting a family, and his grandfather had to bail her out of jail.
“There’s a lot in the history of my family in who I am.”
Keeping it in the family
The UC College of Medicine has become something of a family affair for Fichtenbaum. His wife, Mary Beth Donica, MD, whom he met in medical school, is also working in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the AIDS Education and Training Center Program. Their son, Walter, is a member of the 2020 College of Medicine graduating class. He is doing a surgery residency at the University of Louisville Hospital. Their daughter, Adrienne, is the outdoors editor at the publication Popular Mechanics. Adrienne helped to launch the UC concert series and actually coined the term “Quarantunes.”
Fichtenbaum says he is comfortable with his position in the battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I belong on the front lines, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “It’s my job, it’s my calling. It feels like what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t feel any more special than anybody else. I just happen to have a skill set that’s important and I’m doing everything I can to prevent human suffering.”
Colleague Chapman says the compassion Fichtenbaum has for people is what sets him apart.
“One of the things that I find really remarkable about Carl is that many of his patients have his personal cell number,” Chapman says. “It is not uncommon for him to get calls late in the evening from a patient facing some sort of hardship. He will also spend as much time as a patient needs when seeing them in the clinic. He really shows that he cares about each and every individual that he encounters. We are ever so lucky to have a compassionate soul like Dr. Fichtenbaum. I know I am.”
At a march and demonstration in Cincinnati in late June, Fichtenbaum stood with hundreds of other protestors gathered in the city’s Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine. At the direction of a local minister addressing the crowd, Fichtenbaum and the others bowed their heads and raised their right fist in the air for a moment of silence.
“This is my upbringing, this is who I am,” Fichtenbaum said about social activism. “Being raised like that, I learned a lot of life lessons. I will never change, I will stick by those principles.”
Joining the fight against COVID
UC is one of approximately 90 sites across the United States selected for a study administering a vaccine candidate to volunteer participants and monitoring its efficacy in eliciting an immune response that provides protection from COVID-19. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the study.
“UC was chosen because we have a proven track record of high-quality research and are the number one site in the NIAID-funded, AIDS Clinical Trials Group in the U.S.,” says Fichtenbaum, a co-investigator of the study who will serve as medical director. “We are proud to bring leading-edge research to Cincinnati so that we can help our community battle the COVID-19 pandemic and be part of the solution.”
The vaccine UC is testing was developed by NIAID scientists and collaborators at Moderna, a biotechnology company. The Phase 3 clinical trial will provide more data about the vaccine’s efficacy. More than 30,000 people are expected to participate across the U.S., and UC plans to enroll 500 patients locally.
“This is how health care and science move forward: People saying, ‘Yes, I’m willing to be involved. I see this as a community need, and this is my contribution,’” says Maggie Powers-Fletcher, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UC College of Medicine and co-investigator on the study. “None of these studies would work without individuals in the community being willing to help.”