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News & Press: In Memoriam

In Memoriam - Dr. Omar Fagoaga

Wednesday, August 8, 2018   (0 Comments)
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by Sandra Nehlsen-Cannarella

One day several years ago, the lab manager of my research laboratories told me that several applicants had been interviewed for the open position on my research team and that one person in particular stood out from the others.  After interviewing the final choices, I agreed that this one person was a great choice but I didn’t want to hire him with a chemistry background rather than biology, lab medicine or blood banking. Every day this person called or appeared in person insisting that he could do the job, and finally offered to work for free for a month if I would just give him a chance to prove himself.  The rest is history — I hired him (not for free) and rejoiced later that Omar Fagoaga was definitely the best person I was blessed to find. He instantly befriended the other team members with his warm personality and learned “the ropes” faster than anyone I had known. Soon he was contributing new ideas and approaches and within two years I promoted him to Lab Manager when the position opened.

Omar shared some of his life story with me, a remarkable story indeed. He was born into a family in El Salvador, one of several sibs, and a father who grew coffee beans. When he was a young teenager, he was captured/kidnapped, along with others, by one of the terrorist families in control of his country, and thrown naked into a windowless, dirt-floor, locked room. He managed to escape his captors and eventually made it to the United States where he found freedom and was able to continue his education. Before coming to us at Loma Linda University Medical Center, Omar worked as a quality control chemist for an orange juice company. Omar’s intelligence and work ethic were obvious, so I started pushing him to further his education by working on a Master’s degree (he was the first family member to acquire an advanced degree). I prompted him to work his class schedule into and around his lab work and to select a project for his thesis. He worked incredible hours while researching the possible association of HPV with cervical cancer. He showed that strain 16 of HPV was the culprit in nearly all of a forty-year collection of pathology specimens. While he was writing his Master’s thesis, I pushed him into registering for a PhD program. While he didn’t think he could do it, I knew he could and knew just what he should research. I will always remember the day I had Omar don a fresh white lab coat and took him up to the clinical floors to make rounds of our baby heart transplant recipients.  I said to him, “Omar, this is why we do our research, for our patients.” We spent a lot of time with the parents of one of our newborn heart recipients who at age 11 days was vehemently rejecting her allograft in spite of adequate immunosuppressive treatment.  We took blood specimens from the parents, a family history, and then performed multiple studies that proved it was the mother’s antibodies in the child that were attacking the donor tissue, a problem that was resolved after several days of plasmapheresis. Omar was hooked!  This became Omar’s thesis research project, manipulating mouse maternal immune systems before and during pregnancy to modify the immune responses of the progeny. (And while doing all this, he met and married his beautiful Maria, and produced two daughters and a son, all wonderful like their “Poppi!”)

We celebrated his graduation with his parents attending, as well as the parents of the baby that was the start of it all (Omar dedicated his thesis to them).  Soon Omar was training in histocompatibility and immunogenetics, DNA testing with David Senitzer at City of Hope, and then he trained our clinical crew to perform DNA typing. With this new technology, we realized the potential to study the African American population that would answer many questions.  I took Omar (as my Assistant Director) and his family to Michigan to run the Histocompatibility Division of the Pathology Department at the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University where we mapped a surprising variety of HLA alleles and antibody profiles of the large A.A. population. To this day, I will always remember Omar protesting as we went outside to zero-degree winter days, “This Salvadorian body was not made for this weather.” (By the way, his family loves the four seasons and living in Michigan.) While there, we started several new branches of testing in our clinical lab while providing services for three large transplant programs. At the time of my retirement, the DMC appointed him to fill the director’s position where he continued to excel, eventually adding the Henry Ford Hospital Histocompatibility service to his many responsibilities.

Omar helped everyone, loved his work, and enjoyed sharing his knowledge and experience. He was intelligent, charming, hard working and happy, and was a wonderful husband and father to his beautiful family. Nothing daunted him, not until the very last six months of his fruitful life and career. He was like a son to me, and I cry tears not for him because he is with our loving Creator, but for his family and friends who now must go on in his absence. We love you, Omar, and miss you so much.

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