Building bridges between research and improved patient care

Dr. J. Mark FitzGerald, co-founder of LAH, wanted to be a radiologist. Life, however, had a different plan. As a medical student from Ireland, Dr. FitzGerald worked one summer in the dust and dark of a Bathurst, New Brunswick mine, where a lung condition called Silicosis was wide-spread. Later, as a general internist in Lesotho, Africa, he watched as tuberculosis and other lung diseases ran rampant through that developing country.

What he saw in both places convinced him that respiratory medicine was his true calling. “These experiences were prophetic,” he says, reflecting back on the impact that people struggling to breathe with airway diseases, such as tuberculosis, asthma and COPD, had on his own life and career choices.

With an acceptance to graduate studies in radiology pending back in Ireland, Dr. FitzGerald course-corrected. He left Africa and landed in Canada, at McMaster University, where he completed post-graduate training in respiratory medicine and clinical epidemiology.

“I left radiology behind, and here I am.”

His is an impressive research career that has spanned local, regional, provincial, national and international committees and lung-health organizations, and resulted in more than 550 published studies with many in high-impact journals.

Despite all this, Dr. FitzGerald continues to do what he loves for a single reason: the patients. His career goal remains focused on improving the care of people living with COPD and asthma by taking new knowledge and translating it into clinical practice that benefits people.

“Research alone is not enough to improve care. We need to ensure that all the great research and knowledge that’s created doesn’t just end up in a paper that’s published in medical journals,” he said. “Our patients need and deserve this knowledge. We can’t let its creation become just an academic exercise.”

To this end, Dr. FitzGerald’s approach is one that sees thoughtful consideration and evidence-based strategies applied to ensure the uptake of new knowledge in clinical settings. It caught the attention of a gentleman with whom Dr. FitzGerald had a short, but important conversation a handful of years ago.

While the gentleman had a respiratory disease, he wasn’t one of Dr. FitzGerald’s patients. As the conversation drew to a close, he said he liked the approach of integrating research and care and wanted to help. A few years later, Dr. FitzGerald’s conversation led to a transformative legacy gift of $29 million from the gentleman, who had anonymously bequeathed the funds after his death.

Calling it the most “cost-effective hour of his career,” the gift led to the creation of LAH in 2017; an initiative that plays a critical role in facilitating the translation of research into practice in an evidence-based, collaborative and pragmatic manner. And all for one simple reason: “Breathing is fundamental to life,” Dr. FitzGerald said. “There’s nothing more distressing than watching someone who can’t breathe.”