Life Sciences Faculty Rally to Support Professor in Wake of Diagnosis

By Michelle Villarreal Leschper | Published: May 08, 2019

Life Sciences Faculty Rally to Support Professor in Wake of Diagnosis

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – At the end of December 2018, Dr. Fabio Moretzsohn was referred to a specialist for what he thought was ongoing lower back and sciatic nerve pain. After an MRI, a bone biopsy, and several doctor visits, Moretzsohn received a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer.

On top of trying to cope with the devastating news, including notifying family and friends, the spring semester was about to start, and Moretzsohn, a Professional Assistant Professor of Life Sciences, was scheduled to teach nearly 350 students in four science classes at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Worried, frightened, and unsure of his next steps, Moretzsohn reached out to Department Chair, Dr. Cherie McCollough. Immediately, McCollough put out a call to Life Sciences faculty for help to cover Moretzsohn’s classes, and within 15 minutes of her request, Moretzsohn’s classes were covered for the semester, allowing him flexibility to travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for treatment.

“My colleagues have gone above and beyond to help our students and myself get through this,” he said. “I can't say thank you enough to all of the people helping with classes, logistics, and many other things. They all told me not to worry and focus on getting better. I feel blessed to have such strong community support from my department, colleagues, and students.”

Moretzsohn moved to Corpus Christi in 2004 to work as a postdoctoral research associate with the late Dr. Wes Tunnell at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI). He is now a professor in the College of Science and Engineering teaching Introductory Biology, Biology II, Invertebrate Zoology, and Elements of Parasitology.

When the spring semester first started, Moretzsohn was still able to teach, though his back pain was steadily increasing. He shared his diagnosis with his students and assured them they would be in good hands as other professors stepped in while he traveled for treatment.

Zeina Nader, a sophomore majoring in biomedical science, was one of those students.

“Dr. Fabio is a professor who cares about his students and about their learning,” she said. “He never failed to make biology interesting and fun. He always gave me the motivation to never back down from a challenge, and I don’t think I would be the person I am today without the support I’ve had through my journey. Now, all of his students are behind him supporting him throughout his journey.” 

Early on, scans and MRIs showed Moretzsohn had a tumor on his lung, which spread to other parts of his body, including the bones in his lower back, femur, breastbone, neck, liver, and brain. In February, he started chemotherapy to stop the growth of pain-inducing tumors and began drug treatment for bone reinforcement.

Moretzsohn felt well enough to return to the Island University shortly after he started treatment, and co-workers and students greeted him with “Get Well Soon” gifts, cards, and uplifting messages. Moretzsohn also spent his visit back on campus packing up his belongings to prepare for the long-anticipated move to the new Tidal Hall Life Science Research building where his new office overlooks HRI and Corpus Christi Bay.

“I miss being at work,” he said. “I try to come to campus as often as I can but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to teach again since my colleagues took over my classes.”

Life Sciences Assistant Professor Dr. Xavier Gonzales is one of eight professors who stepped in to teach one of Moretzsohn’s classes.

“We’re working as a community to help him and the students,” Gonzales said. “We’re here to make sure students are successful because when they succeed, we all succeed.”

McCollough said the students have adapted to the “team teaching” approach and are enjoying different perspectives from the different professors.

“The faculty that are covering these classes are giving it their best,” she said. “They aren’t just going in and reading off a slide. They are instructing and teaching in an engaging, relevant, and authentic way.”

Gonzales, who has a background in cancer research and teaches Biology of Cancer, said he encourages Moretzsohn to visit the classroom when he feels well enough, even if it’s only for a short period of time.

“It’s good for his health and part of his recovery process,” Gonzales said. “We need to help each other, especially those who are overcoming diseases. We step in where we need to, and it helps keep them going.”

Since his diagnosis, Moretzsohn has traveled to Houston for appointments and treatments nearly a dozen times. On several occasions, he arrived at MD Anderson for chemotherapy only to learn that his platelet levels were too low to receive treatment, which can cause an increased risk of bleeding. But by early April and after three rounds of chemotherapy, Moretzsohn received good news from his doctors — the treatments were working.

“I am grateful to modern medicine and chemotherapy drugs, and of course, the grace of God that is guiding the doctors, nurses, case workers, machines, and drugs,” he said. “I am convinced that prayers and positive energy also play an important role. I am so grateful to everyone.”

While the past couple of months have been an uphill battle with many challenges, Moretzsohn has enjoyed the personal and private moments with his family, such as taking his two daughters to school in the morning, celebrating Valentine’s Day and Easter weekend with family and friends, and enjoying a home-cooked meal with his wife and children around the family table.

Moretzsohn has treatment scheduled the day before A&M-Corpus Christi’s Spring Commencement but plans to attend Saturday’s ceremony to cheer on the first group of students he taught in the Life Science Department.

“This is a big accomplishment for them, and I want to be there to see it,” he said.

For more information about Dr. Moretzsohn’s cancer journey, visit his CaringBridge blog: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/drfabiomoretzsohn