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On the Front Lines of COVID-19: Dr. Sam Dominguez

April 30, 2020

Dr. Sam Dominguez ’92, the “Tony Fauci of Colorado Children’s Hospital,” was a busy man long before COVID-19 began to demand his attention and expertise. Sam is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Colorado Children’s Hospital in Aurora, Colorado. He is the medical director for the hospital’s clinical microbiology lab, the infectious disease consultant for patients in the hospital, an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver – Anschutz Medical Campus, and the associate medical director for his hospital’s infection control and prevention team.

Now, as the content expert for Colorado Children’s COVID “command center,” Sam has taken on the additional role of community educator. “I have done lots of press conferences, spoken to local media, and have been on five podcasts over the past six weeks,” explains Sam. “My expertise is around diagnostics, so I’m answering questions like, ‘How do we think about coronaviruses in general?’ and ‘How do we prepare our hospital from an infection control standpoint?’” He also runs several town meetings a week for hospital leadership, community providers and internal team members. “As for my day-to-day? I am going to a bunch of meetings,” Sam tells us. “I am advising people in different roles. I am educating people. I am trying to stay on top of the literature as much as I can so our hospital staff can make informed decisions. And I’m trying to calm fears and anxieties—which is probably the hardest part of my job.”

That is where his unofficial Fauci nickname came from. The hospital’s chief medical officer had dropped it at a recent town hall meeting. “I take some issue with that statement because I don’t think I’m quite in that ballpark,” Sam clarifies. Approachable and humble, he eventually concedes that “my role here on a local level is similar to the advisory role that I think Tony Fauci is having at the national level.”

Like Fauci, Sam spends a lot of his time explaining complex ideas to the general public. Not bad for someone who hated public speaking in high school and college. “It was the only class that I didn’t get an A in,” laughs Sam. (It was an A-minus!) “I don’t like public speaking—I talk too fast, and I get nervous, but I do it now all the time.”

Sam credits his Houghton education not only for his training as a scientist but for helping him learn to speak and write clearly about science. “My liberal arts education at Houghton taught me how to do both of those things well (even if I wanted to avoid it!) If you can’t speak and you can’t write, you actually can’t be a good scientist because no one could understand what you’re saying. Being a good communicator is essential—particularly when you’re working in public health and the message that you are able to communicate and speak is critically important.”

Sam has good memories of his Houghton days, especially around the relationships he developed within his majors. “I was a double major in math and chemistry. There was a pretty close-knit group of us chemistry majors that basically lived in a study room on the fourth floor of the Science building for a long time,” Sam remembers. His favorite (and hardest) class was organic chemistry, taught by Dr. Larry Christiansen. “I really loved the way he taught and the way he challenged us to be our best academically and as people. When I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life or where my niche was, Dr. Christensen encouraged me to look into this new (at the time) Medical Scientist Training Program—a joint MD/Ph.D. program for physician-scientists funded by the NIH. He knew that I was interested in both research and medicine, and he thought that I might be a good fit.”

Sam went on to earn his Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago and his M.D. from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, and he believes he has been uniquely prepared for this moment in history, not only by his Houghton education, but by the experiences that have brought him to the present. “I joined a research lab right after the SARS pandemic (2003-04) and worked with one of the preeminent coronavirus researchers of the world at that point in time. We were looking at bat viruses and the role that bats play in jumping emerging events into human populations. Then, in the past six or seven years, I’ve been involved in outbreak investigations of emerging diseases and pathogens. We’ve done a lot of work and received a lot of attention.”

Currently, in this moment of global crisis, Sam has a seat at the table, and he is leading with the heart of a scholar-servant. “Another important thing I learned at Houghton was thinking critically about how a person’s faith and their worldview impact what they do,” continues Sam. “I’m not walking around preaching at people—that’s not who I am or what I am called to do. But I am at the meetings with the c-suite, and they’re listening to what I’m saying. They hear the way I talk about how we care for people and how we need to have integrity in our responses and how we approach and think about the anxieties, fears and concerns of our fellow team members. They listen to me because I am an expert in my field. And even though I’m not overtly preaching the gospel, I am bringing gospel values to these conversations. I think that is critically important and makes a difference in the day-to-day of what we are doing.”