Passion meets purpose: How Fabio Salerno served on the frontlines of COVID-19 while pursuing a PhD

By Annamaria Leahey

Meet Dr. Fabio Salerno, an Italian-born and trained doctor who came to Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry to pursue his PhD in Medical Biophysics – and had to make some difficult decisions along the way as a global pandemic bore down.

Inspired to come to Schulich Medicine for international-level experience with renowned experts in nephrology and medical imaging, Salerno focused his research on clinical ultrasonography, hemodialysis therapy and clinical teaching.

But his PhD journey was not a straight line.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his studies and he watched from afar as his home country, Italy, struggled under the weight of the virus, with death tolls mounting.

He knew he had to temporarily pause his personal research pursuits to help out at a small hospital back home, where he was desperately needed as an emergency physician. So, he did, with the ‘invaluable’ support of his Schulich Medicine mentors and supervisors.

Today – despite the hurdles he faced – Salerno receives his PhD.

Read more about his journey and what he wants to do next in this Q&A.

Watch the Convocation Live Stream here

What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine, and how has your experience getting your PhD at Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry helped you achieve your goals?

In the beginning, I was really fascinated by how the human mind worked and considered pursuing a career in either neurology or psychiatry. While pursuing my medical studies, I became unexpectedly fascinated with the kidneys, after understanding how their function was vital to every other organ and system in the human body.

So, to answer your question, it was my curiosity of the human body and openness to serendipitous discovery that drove me to pursue a career in medicine and clinical research.

Schulich then offered me the opportunity for an international-level experience with top experts in the field of nephrology and medical imaging.

What was the highlight of your experience at Schulich?

My experience at Schulich was truly unique. I had the privilege to work in a highly collaborative, inclusive, and supportive environment, pursuing innovative and meaningful research.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in medicine?

Seeing how this career is a lifetime commitment, I would advise putting one's best effort to work out the reasons why one wants to pursue a career such as this and put one's heart and soul into its pursuit.

What are your future career plans, and how do you hope to make a positive impact in your field? What's next?

I hold a full-time nephrology consultant and scientific director position at the Nephrology and Dialysis Unit at Manzoni Hospital in Lecco, Italy. This is a necessary stepping stone after my almost four-year hiatus from clinical practice due to the pursuit of my PhD.

My research focuses on clinical ultrasonography, hemodialysis therapy and clinical teaching. My next goal is to lead and coordinate a collaborative research effort in the hospitals of Northern Italy for the optimization of hemodialysis.

Could you elaborate on your decision to take a leave of absence and return to Italy to work in a hospital during the pandemic? What motivated you to make this choice?

I was following very closely the development of the COVID-19 pandemic in Northern Italy. As I learned that some areas very close to where I grew up and lived were being locked down due to the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths, I thought that it was my duty to take a temporary break in my studies and offer my help to one of the local hospitals as an emergency physician.

This would not have been possible without the invaluable support of Dr. Federico Pieruzzi in Italy, my supervisors (Dr. Christopher McIntyre and Dr. Grace Parraga) and the then-Medical Biophysics Graduate Chair (Dr. Aaron Ward) in Canada.

How has your experience working in a hospital during the pandemic shaped your perspective on healthcare and your career goals moving forward?

I clearly remember that, at the time, the pandemic demolished all barriers that separated medical specialties. Everyone was collaborating to fight COVID-19. Even if for a limited time, I managed a hospital ward with the help of respirologists, hematologists, and ophthalmologists. I have often sought interdisciplinary collaboration in my work, but only then I realized how truly powerful it can be - working together to achieve the same goal.

True, we had little choice then, but I keep asking myself, “What would happen if I had the chance to work in an environment like that again, or even if I had the chance to lead it?”

What challenges did you face while working in the hospital during such a critical time, and how did you overcome them?

First, isolation. Pretty much all I did back then was work long hours and go back and forth from and to the hospital. Although, in a way, at that time working was the easiest thing to do. In a situation where for most people it must have been difficult to find meaning or to do anything at all, what I was doing was meaningful to me and to others.

Second, the sense of responsibility. In the very beginning, we had no idea if what we were doing was right as we had very little scientific evidence that supported our choices. I remember how thirsty we all were for the latest study results on supportive therapies and antiviral medications. The situation we found ourselves in was something no one had ever experienced before, and that thought made it somewhat easier on my conscience.