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Recalling praise and humility from Dr. Anthony Fauci, a R.I. emergency doctor’s tweet goes, well, viral

Dr. Luke Messac is reminded of the value in being a "perpetual student"

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony FauciSusan Walsh/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE -- As he watches Dr. Anthony S. Fauci lead the battle against the coronavirus, an emergency medicine resident at Brown University remembers what the country’s top infectious disease expert once taught him about being a “perpetual student.”

And his recent recounting of that long-ago interaction with Fauci, spelled out in a spontaneous tweet, not only captured the attention of thousands, but also highlighted Fauci’s generous approach to students and colleagues alike.

Go back to the summer of 2007, when Luke Messac, a native of Arlington, Mass., was a rising senior at Harvard University.

Messac was writing a thesis about global AIDS and the response by the United States. Although they’d never met, there was one doctor in particular whom Messac hoped would talk to him.

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Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has now served as adviser to six presidents, was instrumental in changing the government’s response to HIV-AIDS during its deadliest height. He listened to advocates and worked with them to change the way the government handled clinical drug trials -- a shift that saved lives.

So Messac emailed Fauci out of the blue, and was surprised when the doctor invited him to his office. “He was patient with me and answered all my questions,” Messac said. “I was so grateful that I emailed [the thesis] to him.”

Months later, Fauci wrote back. “Your thesis was absolutely magnificent!” Fauci wrote. “I enjoyed it greatly and actually learned something from it.”

Fauci had read Messac’s thesis, all 120 pages, as well as one written by another Harvard senior.

“This actually gets to a theme that I often weave through commencement addresses; that is, the concept of a ‘perpetual student,‘” Fauci wrote to Messac. “I continually learn, even from people like yourself and Jenny who are much younger than I. Please keep that in mind as you progress in age and experience.”

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Fauci went on to praise Messac’s thesis, saying he planned to mention one of Messac’s insights to the president when they discuss HIV-AIDS, and would quote Messac’s ideas during his lectures and interviews.

Messac was floored. “I was obviously very passionate about the subject,” he said, “but I did not expect that kind of response.”

Messac later earned an M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Rhode Island in 2018 for a residency at Brown. He has published articles and a book about the neglect of healthcare in Malawi.

Dr. Luke Messac
Dr. Luke MessacCourtesy Dr. Luke Messac

And Messac has never forgotten the kindness and humility shown to him by a great doctor. “He’s been at this for so long combating the world’s dreaded diseases, and he’s always been a collaborative worker,” Messac said. “While he’s super highly regarded in medicine, he never pulls rank on you.”

Today, millions of Americans see Fauci calmly leading the nation’s response to COVID-19. Despite differences with President Donald J. Trump and headwinds from detractors in the Trump administration, Fauci’s authority and knowledge have earned the confidence of most Americans.

That’s not surprising to those who know his work, said Messac, who calls Fauci “the Michael Jordan of pandemic response.”

“A lot of people in medicine and global health are interested in how he’s come to prominence, and a lot of us are grateful to see him leading the response,” Messac said.

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One day last week, Messac decided to tweet Fauci’s note to him, just a memory of an encounter with someone who influenced his career. He wanted others to see the doctor’s humanity.

His tweet went, well ... viral. In less than a week, the tweet has been shared more than 50,000 times and liked more than 430,000 times.

“People found a lot that resonated with them,” Messac said.

He thought that Fauci’s belief of always being a “perpetual student” was something others may need to see, especially in the fight against COVID-19. “Part of the reason a lot of us feel down and lacking in hope these days, is that we don’t always see that we’re all in this together,” Messac said.

Messac sees that on the frontlines in Rhode Island’s emergency rooms.

“Working in the ED, you often feel like you’re trying to push back this overwhelming tide of human suffering,” Messac wrote in an email, after speaking to the Globe. “The only way you keep your head up is to remember you’re on a team with other docs and nurses and techs, working together to heal as best you can.

“Soldiers talk about how they fight for the brother or sister next to them. We could all use that ethos right now,” he added. “It will strengthen us to do what we need to do to control the pandemic. It will ensure everyone is housed and fed and cared for. And it will keep us sane. Maybe that sounds corny, but it keeps me going.”

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Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.